Commons Gate

The use of airspace (HC 163-iii)

Transport Committee 4 Mar 2009

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Evidence given by:
2.45 pm British Airways, Captain Dean Plumb, Manager Technical Developments, Virgin Atlantic Airways, Geoff Clark, Head of Flight Operations Regulatory Affairs, International Air Transport Association, Gerry O?Connell, Assistant Director, Safety Operations and Infrastructure, Europe
3.30 pm Ministry of Defence, Air Vice-Marshal Tim Anderson, Assistant Chief of the Air Staff, Air Commodore Mark Wordley, Director Defence Airspace and Air Traffic Management

Q212 Mr. David Clelland: Can you explain why, on a high-profile occasion like that, these high-profile visitors should be coming into Heathrow anyway? Why do they not go to Brise Norton or somewhere like that?

Captain Plumb: That is exactly the question we would ask, and we would support a view that says those alternatives should be looked at.

Mr Wilshire: The three submissions you have made, if I can summarise them like this (I think I am reasonably accurate): you do not like the strategy, you do not like the planning, you do not like the decision-taking and you do not like the regulation seems to be a theme from all of it. What does the CAA and NATS do right?

Q213 Chairman: Who wants to answer that one? Throw us something positive.

Mr O’Connell: If I could start, Chairman, on behalf of IATA. We are a global organisation, of course, but we recognise the airspace in the United Kingdom is probably one of the most complex in the whole of Europe, and NATS does a very good job in managing the traffic volume. The CAA has very important statutory responsibilities on safety and these are discharged very efficiently. I think the point we are trying to make is we are looking at the Transport White Paper at 2030 and we have to plan head. It takes a long time to get the planning process right, and I think perhaps there are opportunities to smarten up the process for changing airspace in the United Kingdom, particularly in the south-east where the demand will rise as new runways are actually built. So our approach is not to be too critical, our approach is to perhaps smarten up the activities of achieving airspace changes safely and more cost-effectively.


Q236 Mr. David Clelland: I have some questions on new and emerging technologies. You suggested that airlines could use technologies and techniques to improve flight efficiency were it not for the outdated air traffic control procedures. What improvements can be made?

Mr O’Connell: There are a lot of developments underway. There are certain navigation equipment capabilities, indeed, that we have on the aircraft which could help the controller by more precise navigation, particularly in terminal airspace, but there is also a very important SESAR project which is now starting, and it is moving away from an airspace base to a trajectory base. The way we have historically used airspace is controlled airspace and uncontrolled airspace, and some of these barriers will break down with the new technology because to develop capacity safely we have to have certain capabilities. Everybody who uses the network must have a certain capability to enable safety to be assured, and as these concepts are wound out and rolled out into Europe up to 2020, we think technology has a huge role to play, not only increasing capacity and not only improving the environmental efficiency, where we have some difficulties at the moment, but also addressing more optimum use of airspace, which we think it is fundamental.

Q237 Mr. David Clelland: Where is the problem here? Is it NATS? Are NATS failing to invest correctly?

Mr O’Connell: I do not think, with respect, it is a case of any air navigation service provider not investing. One of the problems we have with the absence of the Single European Sky is there are 38 air navigation service providers in Europe. Consequently, there are 38 investment programmes in Europe, and, if all these investment programmes are not aligned properly, we get the mismatch that we have in Europe, which introduces many inefficiencies and makes the cost of flying in Europe 70% higher than it is in the United States, and, of course, this is the reason why we urgently need a Single European Sky initiative to harmonise and integrate some activities as regards airspace management in Europe.

Q238 Mr. David Clelland: So systems are more efficient in other countries than they are here?

Mr O’Connell: I think, to be honest, it is difficult to answer that question, because each of the 38 air navigation service providers has their investment programme. The importance of the SESAR project is we begin to move towards a single concept of operation which means all the investment programmes which will come underneath will be aligned at a fixed point in time, and I think there we will get the benefits in the future, but in the meantime we have to use the models we have, which in 38 Member States, I can assure you, it is a very complex operation managing the network in Europe.

Q239 Mr. David Clelland: Do you think that perhaps the public private partnership in NATS is causing a lack of long-term thinking?

Mr O’Connell: I do not think there is any evidence of that. NATS is engaged in its capital expenditure planning and it responds to customer requirements for more efficient airspace and, as a good air navigation service provider, it will address the needs of the members that we have flying into Europe.

Captain Plumb: I would add to that that our recent first-hand experience has been quite the opposite to the position you fear, which is actually NATS has some strong leadership, it has got some clear focus and strategic focus and seems very energetic in its efforts to invest wisely in technology in the future, and the level of engagement that we have seen with NATS on those subjects, in quite some detail, leaves us with a great of confidence that they have got their eyes on the horizon.

Q240 Mr. David Clelland: Can I ask about precision area navigation. Who or what has prevented the benefits of P-RNAV being achieved in nuclear airspace?

Captain Plumb: P-R Navigation - effectively it is using technology that is already on the aircraft, and most Western built aircraft over the last 20 years, I would suggest, are capable of these navigation standards. What we have seen over the last 20 years is an increase in navigational accuracy but most of our air traffic and routing regulations are not given credit for that. We have been slow to take full advantage of this increasing capability but now new standards have emerged so we have a standard in P-RNAV which allows for arrivals and departures at airports an accuracy - it sounds bad - of only plus or minus a mile. The demonstrated accuracy is much more accurate, especially with GPS equipped aircraft. You are talking about accuracy in tens of metres. The promise that P-RNAV has for us for the future is that you remove reliance on ground based navigation aids and infrastructure. It is much more flexible in terms of being able to redesign, make small and more frequent changes to procedures to try to fine tune the efficiency. It allows the pilots to start thinking in 4D which is positions and times over specific geographical or weigh point features. The promise is of more efficient use of airspace with P-RNAV.

Q241 Mr. David Clelland: Should the operations at major airports be limited to those aircraft which have top quality navigational systems?

Captain Plumb: There is certainly an argument that says there is a minimum standard, a threshold below which an aircraft should not operate into congested airspace. There should be a mixture of both safety systems and navigational systems and ultimately communication systems with ATC as well. Most western built aircraft fit those criteria quite easily and indeed most European and east European aircraft as well these days. Those standards are very well monitored by the CAA and I do not think there are too many aircraft that would fail to meet those requirements.

Q242 Mr. David Clelland: Should the CAA insist that airspace designs must make optimal operational use of this equipment?

Captain Plumb: The opportunity here is to use P-RNAV much more widely. It is a very flexible tool. Our own area is getting to grips with P-RNAV and all the opportunities that that offers and there is an increasing roll out of P-RNAV procedures. We would like to see that accelerated and we would like to see much greater emphasis on it because of the flexibility of it.

Mr O’Connell: At the European level the SESAR master plan which we hope the Transport Council will adopt in Brussels at the end of this month for the first implementation package will be one of the elements which will give you the assurance that we can use airspace in a more environmentally friendly way with the use of this technology. I would hope that this programme could be rolled out across the whole of Europe.

Q243 Mr. David Clelland: Will future technological advances mean that you may have to change the traditional fixed departure time model you operate in order to improve flight efficiency?

Mr O’Connell: To improve flight efficiency many things have to be done of which use of equipment is one. CBAs is another aspect. Eliminating congestion points in the network at European level means a more harmonised approach to the design. All of these elements have to be done in a sequenced, packaged way. We want a single set of operating procedures for our pilots when they fly across Europe. I do not know if you want to add anything?

Captain Plumb: I did not quite hear the question. Was it fixed departure times or points?

Q244 Mr. David Clelland: Yes. Would the traditionally fixed departure times you operate at the moment have to change in order to improve flight efficiency?

Captain Plumb: The fixed departure times that we run on our schedule at the moment are just a statement of intent. The reality is the operation is incredibly flexible.

Q245 Chairman: What makes it flexible? We were told by NATS that technological changes would mean that take offs may not be able to happen until landing slots were known to be available. Is that the reason that there is flexibility now or is it something else?

Captain Plumb: That is a development that I have not been aware of.

Q246 Chairman: That was the point that was put to us when we visited Swanwick last week.

Captain Plumb: I am sorry; I do not have anything to add.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

The full transcript may be read here.

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