Martin Donnan: New air traffic system offers speed and safety

Air traffic controllers prepare for traffic surge this summer and beyond, writes Martin Donnan
NATS Prestwick. Picture: Robert PerryNATS Prestwick. Picture: Robert Perry
NATS Prestwick. Picture: Robert Perry

This summer more flights than ever are expected to depart from and arrive into Scotland’s airports, with many additional flights scheduled to cope with the seasonal demand from travellers en-route for business or visiting family and friends abroad.

It’s a scenario that we at NATS Prestwick relish, as every day we set about the vital task of providing the seamless air traffic management service that keeps the busy skies above Scotland safe. All the major Scottish airports are expecting bumper passenger numbers this summer and we’ve been working with them over recent months to make sure we’re ready to help manage that demand.

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However, our airspace – the invisible infrastructure above our heads - is a finite resource and we need to find new and better ways of using it in order to support future traffic growth and demand. As such we’re about to roll-out the next-generation of air traffic control technology at Prestwick, called iTEC.

Using iTEC – Interoperability Through European Collaboration – air traffic controllers will be able to share data across national borders to plot detailed trajectories for aircraft well in advance of their arrival in Scottish airspace, helping to cut fuel burn and emissions while increasing capacity and safety.

Having been in limited operation at Prestwick centre since earlier this year, when it was first used to control a flight from London Stansted to Edinburgh, the system is gradually coming into increasing use. Almost 100 controllers have now been trained to use the new system, which has been successfully used for over 200 hours of live operations ahead of a full switch over in the coming weeks.

Prestwick is the first air traffic control centre in the UK to adopt iTEC, which will provide airlines with the potential to offer travellers more Scottish flights, not merely in the summer season but throughout the year, in turn boosting passenger and freight traffic through airports in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the north of England. The new technology pulls together a range of tools to increase airspace capacity, tools that both reduce air traffic controllers’ workload and improve safety by automatically detecting potential aircraft conflicts ahead of time. When fully operational, the iTEC control system has the potential to increase airspace capacity by as much as 40 per cent, without compromising safety.

This means that potential congestion spots can be highlighted in good time and, instead of asking pilots to make potentially lengthy detours as they approach a busy sector, pilots in the airspace can be set on their optimum courses, ensuring they pass others at safe distances in order to get where they need to go.

It’s all about giving our controllers sight of the best possible picture to help them do their job. By being able to predict with certainty where any one flight will be in advance, the iTEC system automatically helps support conflict-free flight plans, leaving our expert air traffic controllers free to monitor the overall flight plan and concentrate on maintaining safe separation of all the aircraft in their airspace.

The new system will also help reduce aircraft emissions and overall fuel consumption by paving the way for the introduction of a Free Route Airspace regime. This is designed to provide greater flexibility for aircraft flying as it allows pilots to adopt the best course available to them taking into account the prevailing weather conditions.

Once the new technology has been fully implemented at Prestwick, we’re looking to install the iTEC system in our Swanwick air traffic control centre in Hampshire as well, so that within the next five years this state-of-the-art system will support our entire UK operation. The iTEC platform has been developed to be interoperable with air traffic management systems across Europe. Its introduction at Prestwick represents a major milestone for NATS and helps bring a Single European Sky closer to reality.

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These are very exciting times for air traffic management. We can’t instantly create more airspace to satisfy the growing requirements of modern aviation so, instead, we’re making the most of what we have available through the use of better technology.

In time, iTEC will help to improve the service we can offer our airline customers, making us more flexible, efficient, and resilient, and ultimately this will bring big benefits for passengers who are the customers of our customers.

We’ve been planning for this transition for years and I believe we’re in the best possible place to ensure a smooth introduction for airlines and passengers and to provide the very best possible service this summer and beyond.

• Martin Donnan is general manager, NATS Prestwick Centre