PILOTS will be able to choose their own flight paths over Scotland next year in a pioneering trial to cut delays and save fuel.
Airlines will be free to decide which route to take rather than being limited to the traditional “motorways in the sky” flight corridors.
The move is the first stage towards maximising the use of airspace to cope with an expected increase in European flights from ten million to nearly 17 million a year by 2030.
Currently, 70 per cent of such flights use just 14 per cent of the available airspace.
The new approach will also enable aircraft to better avoid bad weather and take advantage of favourable tail winds.
Nats, the former National Air Traffic Services, which controls UK airspace, will launch the first phase of the Route Free Airspace project in March.
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Its Prestwick air traffic control centre will manage the trial, which will initially cover an area between Skye and the Isle of Man into the eastern edge of the Atlantic, which is used by up to 450 planes a day.
Taking part will be aircraft at cruising height, above 25,500ft (five miles up), including transatlantic flights to and from Scotland and some on Canary Islands and southern Mediterranean routes.
The experiment will be extended to the rest of Scotland north of the Central Belt and part of the North Sea in 2017.
Pilots will still have to pre-book their chosen flightpaths.
The system is due to be further expanded after satellite surveillance systems become standard on aircraft in 2017.
This will enable air traffic controllers to track planes much better than when using the current radar, whose range extends only some 150 miles into the Atlantic.
It will also mean aircraft being able to communicate with each other.
The technology is expected to take over some of air traffic controllers’ workload. Benefits include being able to predict potential collisions far in advance to provide more time for evasive action to be taken.
Nats said allowing pilots to choose their own routes would reduce delays by being able to predict their arrival times more accurately.
Nats Prestwick operations director Alastair Muir said: “The system sees a reduction in miles travelled, so less fuel used. For passengers, it should lead to a much more predictable journey.”
Mr Muir said the technology could ultimately lead to pilotless planes, if public confidence allowed it.
Under a separate trial, a remotely controlled small Jetstream aircraft flew from England to Inverness last year, but pilots were aboard in case anything went wrong.
The British Airline Pilots Association expressed doubts about the wider use of Route Free Airspace.
Its spokesman said: “Aircraft want to change their planned routes all the time, whether that be for a more expeditious route, weather or emergency situations.
“We don’t feel an autonomous system would allow for that on such a large scale, and having a human being as part of the operation is vital.”
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