Modernising airspace more important than new runway says regulator

Building a new runway at either Gatwick or Heathrow won’t solve the air capacity crunch unless technology managing the UK’s airspace is modernised, the Civil Aviation Authority CEO has said. 

According to Andrew Haines, UK airspace is managed using structures designed in the 1960s and 1970s. Employing modern approaches and technologies would not only improve air capacity but also decrease noise levels on the ground and reduce the amount of pollution generated by the aircraft.

"Unless we modernise our airspace, in London in particular but the UK as a whole, then we will not be able to use that additional runway wherever it is because the levels of congestion we have are very severe,” Haines told the PA news agency. He further added that expanding Heathrow or Gatwick without redesigning airspace would be "like building a brand new car park and forgetting to build the access road to it".

Modern navigation technologies, for example, allow air traffic controllers to queue aircraft more efficiently on approach.

Currently, a method known as stack holding is commonly used when there are too many planes approaching and the runway is for some reason not immediately available to accommodate them.

The stack holding procedure requires aircraft to fly 300m apart while spiralling down from 3,400m to 2,000m in preparation for landing. The new technologies would allow so-called linear holding, in which the planes queue in a straight line at 6,000m. Queueing at this altitude would reduce noise impact at ground level as well as improve fuel efficiency.

"How you configure the airspace probably has more noise impact on the local community than anything else," said Haines. "It's not an issue that has got anything like the same level of political or media attention as runways."

The Department for Transport (DfT) announced in June that the long-awaited decision on which airport should be expanded would be delayed until at least October following David Cameron's resignation as prime minister.

The Davies Commission recommended in July last year that a third runway should be built at Heathrow. Other shortlisted options are extending the airport's existing northern runway or building a second runway at Gatwick.

Haines said it would be wrong to think that expanding either Heathrow or Gatwick would be ‘materially easier than the other’ in terms of managing the impact on communities.

A spokesman for the Department of Transport said the DfT is in the process of reviewing existing airspace and noise policies and will consult on proposals in due course.

He said that from a noise perspective Gatwick "obviously has fewer people affected" but those residents have lower ambient noise and "tend to react much more strongly to increases".

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