Prestwick is central to changes for US-bound flights

Technology will enable airlines to cope with climate change on transatlantic routes, says Andy Smith

There are technological innovations and challenges for those at NATS Prestwick. Picture: Robert Perry
There are technological innovations and challenges for those at NATS Prestwick. Picture: Robert Perry

Whether it’s Washington on business, sightseeing in the Big Apple, or a vacation of a lifetime to visit everyone’s favourite Mouse in Florida, many of us simply want our journey across the North Atlantic to be as quick as possible. However, recent research by the University of Reading suggests climate change has the potential to make oceanic flights longer, bringing increased fuel use and the prospect of higher air fares. The need for innovation within this crucial transatlantic gateway is therefore clear for all to see.

For the team at NATS Prestwick, the conundrum of designing a transatlantic route network for up to 1,500 flights to safely, quickly and efficiently cross the world’s busiest oceanic airspace every day is an all too familiar challenge and one we face not just once, but twice daily. Working closely with our colleagues in Gander, Newfoundland, we design this route network in exactly the right location to maximise airspace capacity and airline efficiency. Central to its design, and in turn our flight times, is the location of the North Atlantic jetstream, and the minimum safe distance between aircraft.

The jetstream is a fast-moving ribbon of air that flows from west to east across the globe within a narrow altitude band above 30,000 feet. With winds routinely exceeding 160-200 miles per hour, it’s important that westbound traffic from the UK and Europe to North America avoids the headwind to reduce time and fuel burn in the air, with those flying eastbound seeking to take maximum advantage of its assistance.

Recent research suggests that rising global CO2 levels will intensify this jetstream, leading to longer flights westbound that will outweigh the benefits from shorter eastbound flights. Whilst the change may only be small, the impact of this is projected to be significant with some 450,000 flights each year using this crucial piece of airspace.

Whilst our scientists and meteorologists further research jet stream activity, the team here at Prestwick are instead innovating around how we use this airspace, and in particular the services we provide to aircraft and the minimum safe distances we use to keep aircraft apart. In an area of airspace with very few land masses to locate traditional “line of sight” communications and surveillance tools like radar, we must look to the skies, hundreds and thousands of kilometres above the earth, for our innovation instead.

Since 2010, NATS have led the way in developing safe, reduced separation standards between aircraft within oceanic airspace through the use of aircraft satellite communications and DataLink (a satellite-based text messaging between pilots and air traffic controllers). DataLink speeds up routine messages and provides controllers with more time, and better tools, to control flights. Despite seeing reductions of around 50 per cent in these minimum safe distances, aircraft are still kept up to 40 miles apart, some eight to ten times further away from each other than you would expect to see over the UK, wasting valuable airspace during peak periods.

Our plan is therefore to use new satellite-based surveillance data, working in partnership with existing satellite communications, to create an environment where minimum separation distances between aircraft can be further reduced.

Our new service, developed with our implementation partners Nav Canada, is expected to enter service in 2018. Not only will this bring improved safety and flight tracking, but the improved control capabilities we’re developing for our air traffic controllers will mean more aircraft can now safely use the most efficient areas of oceanic airspace at the same time.

When flying eastbound, this will lead to more aircraft flying within the core jetstream, taking maximum advantage of the wind to shorten flight times. Westbound, smaller distances between flights will mean that more aircraft can safely fly closer together on routes that avoid headwinds and that reduce not just fuel but overall costs for airlines too.

In addition, we’re developing new tools and processes using this data that will mean aircraft fly not only at their most fuel efficient levels, climbing or descending whenever necessary to follow the best winds and temperatures, but also at a speed that the aircraft determines to be the most fuel efficient, or that delivers the aircraft to its arrival stand, on time.

These improvements will enable significant reductions in fuel use and greenhouse gasses for flights crossing the North Atlantic but it’s important that these improvements are further enhanced on entry into our domestic networks.. This change will seamlessly deliver this oceanic traffic into busy systemised airspace close to major airports like Heathrow.

Finally, award winning innovation like time based separation, which has more than halved wind related delays at Heathrow, ensures that you arrive when expected and where the army of baggage handlers, immigration and other essential ground staff are there to meet you and speed you on your way.

- Andy Smith is manager of Air Traffic Control Development, Prestwick Centre