Lower Airspace: a boundary to aviation growth?

Written by: Ceri Jury
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Delays in the aviation network have been hitting the headlines for many years. European airspace is among the busiest in the world, and "the costs of delays in the European aviation network will exceed 1 billion Euros this year". For each minute of delay, a Boeing 747 can burn up to 0.18 tonnes of fuel a minute in cruise producing up to 0.57 tonnes of CO2 and in 2017 the average en-route Air Traffic Flow Management delay was 0.88 minutes per flight.

Currently, the European ATM system handles around 26,000 flights daily and Eurocontrol estimates "there will be a 53% increase in flight movements by 2040". Given these huge numbers, and the environmental and economic consequences of delay, how do we plan to increase capacity and reduce delays and congestion? Increasing capacity is a factor at the forefront of aviation development but unlocking that capacity will not be a simple procedure. The European Commission is actively tackling this issue in concepts such as the European Architecture Project and the EUIR (Europe Upper Airspace Region) but these don't address the whole system, and particularly the lower airspace bottleneck.

The problem

If concepts from the European Commission succeed in increasing the capacity in the upper airspace region, how are aircraft going to get into lower airspace and land if the current lower airspace is not also addressed as a matter of urgency?

Europe's 24 main airports will struggle to handle all the extra movements. Mid-sized airfields will need to step up and take pressure off the main hubs. However, as you can imagine, communities residing near to airfields that only experience the odd flight will be far from pleased if their village suddenly becomes part of a heavily-used flight track. Not to mention the additional issue of the cost and complication of upgrading the infrastructure and technology required for these airfields to handle more traffic.

Lower airspace has more complexities than higher levels. There is a much greater variety of aircraft using lower airspace and aircraft are performing more manoeuvres due to the proximity of airports. If I'd said 20 years ago that we need to start preparing airspace for the possibility of commercial spaceflight, you would have probably thought I was crazy. In recent years we have also experienced difficulties attempting to regulate drone usage. Lower airspace, whilst dominated by commercial aircraft, must also cater for general aviation and incorporate new technologies. If smaller airfields are expected to handle more traffic, will this mean that greater areas of currently uncontrolled airspace will need to be made into controlled areas? If this were to happen, the airspace available for general aviation will be greatly restricted. Also, if a large number of smaller airports require more controlled airspace how do we integrate controlled airspace regions when the airports are close together?

Figure 1 The increase in controlled airspace resulting from a rise in operations at smaller airfields.

Current airspace initiatives

Driven by the European Commission, ATM Functionality 1 (part of the Pilot Common Project) considers terminal airspace, but only for the 34 main airfields. It includes extended arrival management and Performance Based Navigation (PBN) in high density terminal manoeuvring areas.

The PBN IR (PBN Implementing Rule) encourages the rollout of PBN approaches and includes smaller airfields. This is a new lease of life for smaller airfields and will create demand. But this demand will require more control over the surrounding airspace and present potential noise complications as aircraft fly more accurately on a satellite mapped flightpath.

Through performance requirements (RNP), this functionality will increase efficiency and reduce emissions by allowing routes to be spaced closer together as well as enabling repeatable and accurate turns. This allows greater flexibility for aircrews planning descents. This is most definitely a step in the right direction, however, what we need, is integration with secondary airfields.

Within the UK, CAP1690 takes a refreshing perspective on modernising airspace by looking at all flight levels. This works towards the Government and the CAA's shared objective of 'ensuring airspace capacity is not a constraint on the growth of commercial aviation'.

No easy solutions

We are often told to break big problems down into manageable chunks to solve them. This seems to be what's happening with airspace. But to really solve the problem we need to look at it from a system/network point of view. Ideally, we need more strategies with the approach of CAP1690, ensuring that the modernisation of all sections of airspace is integrated.

Overall, we have a fast approaching problem, in that if strategies such as the EUIR concept and the European Airspace Architecture Project succeed in allowing for more aircraft to travel through European upper flight regions, current lower airspace will not be able to handle the extra traffic. This crucial point is not currently high enough on the international and political agenda, where the focus has been on the implementation of strategies to improve the upper airspace. These strategies will be futile if they are not supported by similar progress in upgrading lower airspace. How much longer will this problem be left to grow before this issue is addressed and solutions proposed?

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