When darkness fell on 24 December and children started straining their eyes for a glimpse of Santa’s reindeer-drawn sleigh, our air traffic controllers were busy behind the scenes making sure not only that Elf Force One flies to plan, but that all flights under their management run smoothly and safely.
At our Prestwick centre, where new state-of-the-art iTEC air traffic management technology was phased in this summer, controllers are gearing up well ahead of time to cover their seasonal shifts in festive fashion. But ops room tinsel and desk decorations never get in the way of the serious business of managing operations.
The technology platform that is now operational at the Prestwick air traffic control centre has been a great success. Using iTEC, which stands for Interoperability Through European Collaboration, NATS air traffic controllers are able to share data across national borders and use it to plot detailed trajectories for aircraft well in advance of their arrival in Scottish airspace.
Now fully up-and-running, the new system 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, from a good distance away pilots of all aircraft 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.
Prestwick is the first air traffic control centre in the UK to adopt this new iTEC platform and so provide airlines with the opportunity to offer travellers significantly more Scottish flights – and not only at Christmas time. Throughout the year, iTEC is helping us safely manage a gradually increasing volume of passenger and freight traffic through airports in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the North of England. Looking ahead, the iTEC control system has the potential to increase airspace capacity by as much as 40 per cent – without compromising safety.
In time, iTEC is expected to become the single technology platform for NATS operations across the UK, and the new system is already helping to reduce aircraft emissions and overall fuel consumption, paving the way for the introduction of a Free Route Airspace regime that is designed to provide greater flexibility for aircraft flying above 28,000 feet. This will allow pilots to adopt the best course available to them taking into account the prevailing weather conditions.
But we are not complacent. NATS is spearheading recent aviation industry calls for widespread changes to be made to UK airspace in the future. We are a driving force behind the Sky’s the Limit group, which earlier this month launched a campaign to highlight the economic and environmental costs we believe would be the inevitable consequence of failing to modernise the skies above us.
Unless the UK’s ageing network of airspace structures and flight paths is redesigned to make better use of modern aircraft technology, annual flight delays are likely to rise from current levels of about 90,000 minutes to four million minutes by 2030, and valuable environmental benefits that could be gained by more direct flight paths and enhanced technologies will simply be lost. With the amount of air traffic over Scotland set to rise in line with national trends – we expect overall air traffic volumes to increase by about a third from now until 2030, when it is forecast that UK flights will number 3.1 million annually – we feel strongly that there is no more time to lose.
Of course, it is not only NATS controllers at our Prestwick control centre who will be scanning the skies for Rudolf and the gang this Christmas Eve. At Scotland’s Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen airports, too, NATS air traffic controllers will be working hard behind the scenes over the holiday season to get passengers safely where they need to be, in good time for their festivities to begin – from passengers flying far and wide to visit friends and family, to oil industry workers heading home from offshore rigs, travellers from, to, and over Scotland can rely on us for safe passage.
Whatever the Christmas season means to you, it is business as usual for the NATS air traffic controllers who keep the skies safe, all year round. l Martin Donnan, general manager, NATS Prestwick Centre