Air traffic control is delivering the future

The Prestwick Air Traffic Control Centre oversees the safe passage of 1,300 aircraft per day. Picture: Ian Rutherford
The Prestwick Air Traffic Control Centre oversees the safe passage of 1,300 aircraft per day. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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THE Prestwick centre is leading the way, writes Alastair Muir.

At the Prestwick Air Traffic Control Centre, we ensure the safe and efficient passage of around 800,000 aircraft per year through not only the northern UK airspace, but also for 400,000 aircraft annually crossing the North Atlantic.

Although pre-dating our presence in Prestwick since 1942, the inaugural North Atlantic customers were John Alcock and Arthur Brown. In 1919 these brave pioneers were the first to cross the Atlantic non-stop from St Johns, Newfoundland, eventually having what can only be described as a somewhat abrupt landing in Clifden, Ireland.

They picked up a prize of £10,000 from the Daily Mail for this amazing achievement and soon after knighthoods, but it was hard earned. Their communication system failed after their first transmission, their navigation systems failed and they were forced to revert to navigation by the stars; when they flew into bad weather they had to clear the snow and ice by leaning out of the open cockpit; their flight time was 16 hours.

This experience could not be more different from today’s, with advanced navigational and control systems for pilots, five to eight hours crossing time and – you will be glad to know – no leaning out of cockpits mid-flight to clear snow!

Even with their obvious foresight and advanced piloting capability, Alcock and Brown could not have predicted the extraordinary leaps of change made since their experience compared to the luxurious passenger experience and avionic capabilities of today’s North Atlantic crossings. And there is so much more to come.

When it is one or two aircraft that are making this Atlantic crossing, the role of Air Traffic Control is somewhat superfluous. However, when the traffic count is in the order of 1,300 per day, as we see today – and that will only grow in the future – the NATS purpose of keeping the Atlantic skies safe while delivering the best possible customer experience becomes essential.

To achieve this, we utilise ever-advancing technology and air traffic control techniques at Prestwick to ensure that every crossing is safe and efficient. In spite of these advances, the challenge has always been that traditional ground based systems are not useable in North Atlantic airspace, so we have relied upon advanced predicted aircraft positioning, actual aircraft/pilot periodic confirmation of position and much greater separation of aircraft, ie 80 miles when we would normally allow five.

Until now. Today’s changes are somewhat more than evolutional as they mark the start of a paradigm shift – a progressive approach to a 2025 global vision of dynamic and fuel and carbon dioxide efficient airspace.

Combine this with the equivalent air traffic management evolutional steps in Europe and North America, and passengers experience should become more predictable and potentially cheaper on a global scale.

The integrated capability of ground and aircraft systems will see global satellite tracking of all aircraft, air traffic controllers receiving Atlantic aircraft position updates every eight to ten seconds and the end of voice communications between controller and pilot, to be replaced by [monitored] ground-based systems to aircraft-based systems data exchange. Although it is a vision for 2025, NATS and its transatlantic partners are delivering this today.

As of November 2014, the Prestwick and Canadian Atlantic air traffic management systems are the same advanced capability platforms; the initial techniques to provide more flexible routing that better fits the optimum needs of today’s aircraft are deployed and enabling more than 35,000 tonnes of fuel savings per year for our customers; further flexible routing techniques are in the early stages of planning with implementation planned for later this year; and the first of the satellites that will provide an enhanced surveillance capability will be launched this summer and will continue to be launched until full global coverage is achieved in 2018.

So from Alcock and Brown to today’s high capability avionics and air traffic management systems, we see not only massive change but also the roots of the next generation emerging. A change that will see the strengthening of the position of the Prestwick Air Traffic Control Centre as the transatlantic gateway, delivering the 2025 vision today, and in partnership with our global industry colleagues. We are leading the way.

• Alastair Muir is NATS Operations Director (Prestwick)