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Airspace change and modernisation

Published Thursday, August 31, 2017

This paper looks at the structure and management of airspace in the UK and the wider international context. It explains how airspace functions at the moment and proposals to upgrade and improve it, including the EU Single European Sky programme and the UK’s Future Airspace Strategy.

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Airspace is a complex thing to understand, the easiest way to think of it is as a motorway network in the sky. Airspace is the volume of space above ground level and extends as far as aircraft can fly. UK airspace contains a network of corridors, or airways. These are usually ten miles wide and reach up to a height of 24,000 feet from a base of between 5,000 and 7,000 feet. Airspace is either considered to be ‘controlled’ or ‘uncontrolled’. In controlled airspace, there is a system of structured routes and aircraft which are managed by air traffic control (ATC) services. By contrast, a large volume of airspace in the UK is uncontrolled and this is where the pilot of the aircraft does not receive a service from the ground but has to “see and avoid” other aircraft and navigate independently.

Three main organisations have responsibility for UK airspace management and design: the Government (largely the Department for Transport) is responsible for overall aviation policy; the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the UK's aviation regulator, is responsible for the planning and regulation of all UK airspace, and at the operational level, NATS is the monopoly provider of en-route air traffic services to aircraft flying in UK airspace.

The current legal and policy framework for airspace is set by Government, in accordance with international and European standards and requirements. Member states of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), including the UK, collaborate on a common regulatory framework and agree international standards on various issues, including the access to and use of airspace. EU laws implement several of ICAO’s resolutions. The main EU initiative in this area is the Single European Sky (SES), launched in 1999 to reform the architecture of European air traffic management. Its implementation is intended to increase the overall efficiency of the European air transport system.

The UK and Ireland is planning to meet the SES requirements through its Future Airspace Strategy, published in June 2011, with a programme to modernise airspace across the UK out to 2030. The biggest changes in the UK are likely to be in the south east of England (whose airspace was designed over 40 years ago) where London’s five big airports and many smaller aerodromes create some of the world’s busiest and most complex skies.

In February 2017 the Department of Transport published a consultation on UK airspace policy reform. The main proposals in the paper include establishing an Independent Commission on Civil Aviation Noise; providing industry with ways to assess noise impacts and choose between route options to help them manage change more effectively; bringing compensation policy for airspace changes in line with policy on changes to aviation infrastructure; and offering greater flexibility to three of London’s major airports. It closed on 25 May 2017. The Government is currently considering its response.

Further briefings on aviation-related issues can be found on the dedicated page of the Parliament website.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-7889

Authors: Louise Butcher; Andrew Haylen

Topic: Aviation

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