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Future airspace

Ed Bellamy reports on the Airspace Modernisation Strategy, with a reminder to look – and respond – to the consultation’s GA proposals

This month things seemed a little quiet on the regulatory news front, but something ever-present is discussion around airspace and the management thereof. There is always some ‘airspace change proposal’ (ACP), a temporary zone for drones or other policy development floating around.

Last month in his column, Ian covered the current consultation on the refreshed ‘Airspace Modernisation Strategy’ (AMS). I won’t repeat the detail of what Ian covered, but just as a reminder the consultation is open until 4 April and is worth a look, even if it is just to respond and say ‘yes please’ to some of the GA relevant proposals.

I suspect even those who get as far as reading the consultation might wonder something along the lines of: what is the process of these changes coming into effect? Will responding to a consultation make any difference? Why might things change when in the past little has happened?

I am more optimistic about the future of airspace in the UK than in the past – nothing is ever going to happen very quickly in this area, but changes have occurred in the last few years that I think will make a difference.

Coordination of airspace change

While individual ACPs come and go, the AMS represents a more serious attempt to impose structure on the process of modernising Britain’s airspace. It is jointly sponsored by the CAA and Department for Transport.

Until 2018 the AMS was known as the ‘Future Airspace Strategy’ (FAS) but was refreshed when FAS struggled to gain traction. An early problem was that individual air traffic service providers (ANSPs) – i.e. the units responsible for ATC at individual airports – had little incentive to co-operate, especially if it meant having to compromise on airspace design or traffic flows when the competing needs of the system were considered overall. There was also the question of who paid for the work – it is very costly to design airspace and airports normally have to foot the bill themselves.

Another issue was the interface between en route airspace managed by ‘NERL’ (the en route ANSP branch of NATS) and airports – it was difficult to facilitate cooperation in a structured manner without a body having the power to do so. You might assume that was the role of the CAA, but until recently there were gaps in the CAA’s statutory powers over airspace and the policy mandate from the Government for the CAA to direct airspace was unclear.

The CAA now has clearer powers to develop airspace strategy and if necessary direct that airspace changes be commenced. In 2019 the coordination function for modernisation was given to something called the ‘Airspace Change Organising Group’. Established as a separate unit within NERL, the ACOG will work on resolving the complex interdependencies involved in airspace reform. This might seem like a conflict of interest, but the reality is that NERL are probably better placed than anyone to perform this function. The ACOG is made up of multiple stakeholders, including representatives of GA.

Although the organisational groundwork was done in 2019, Covid meant that a lot was put on hold until mid-2021, so little has occurred in the intervening period. The timing of the AMS consultation is therefore significant – as we hopefully leave the shadow of Covid, a hitting of the reset button seems appropriate.

Multiple documents

As Ian alluded last month, a chronic issue in aviation is keeping track of the documents that are used to convey information and proposals to stakeholders. For example, in early January several came out in quick succession – a progress update on the existing AMS, a consultation on the future AMS covering 2022-2040 and a further iteration of the ACOG’s Master Plan for airspace change. There was also a progress report on the CAA’s review of airspace classification in the Cotswold region. In total there were around 400 pages of content. People probably wonder how this all fits together.

Broadly the AMS can be thought of as the high-level package of enablers. Initiatives include transitioning to ‘free route’ airspace for IFR traffic, removal of traditional fixed airways and more use of time-based separation as airliners transition from the en route to terminal phase of flight. Flexible use of airspace and the progress of the CAA’s airspace classification review also feature. The benefits for GA are hopefully less terminal airspace at lower level and more seamless access to those areas of controlled airspace that remain.

The ACOG master plan aims to map the interdependencies and should ensure that when individual ACPs are brought forward, they dovetail appropriately with others. Individual airports will still ultimately be responsible for their own change proposals, but they will have to conform to the principles of the AMS and the outline of the master plan, as well as going through the normal CAA approval process of CAP1616.

GA voice

Compared to the FAS documents of nearly 10 years ago, GA appears to feature a lot more now in the discourse around airspace. For example, suggestions such as the replacement of LARS with more centralised Flight Information Services would hopefully improve and simplify ATC services for GA. That’s not to say the battle is won – individual ACP packages must still be scrutinised for local impact and there is a funding question over much of the work. However, at least GA is now in the room regarding airspace, so let’s keep speaking up. 

More info:
Airspace Modernisation
ACOG

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