Preparing for traffic regeneration

We should now be approaching our busiest weeks of the year. Instead, our controllers are working traffic levels of around 14% of what they would usually expect, similar to a normal night shift.

But we are seeing signs of a traffic upturn, with an increase in planned flights for July and a number of airlines indicating that they will be returning to the skies. Relaxation of the Government’s quarantine rules next week would certainly help, and there’s no doubt that with ‘airbridges’ being built with some countries, at least some holidays will be back on. Planning for that is a major undertaking.

Aviation has always been a collaborative industry and it is now working together more collectively than I have ever known, to understand what the return in traffic will look like. The Department for Transport has set up an Expert Steering Group, which I’m on, and I’m really impressed by the united aim we have with airports and airlines, sharing data and scenario planning with Eurocontrol and the Network Manager to make sure everything we do is fully coordinated across Europe.

The general assumption is that traffic is likely to increase slowly through to the end of the year, but we have to be ready to handle traffic whenever it returns. There’s no way airspace can be a constraint on regeneration so that means careful planning within our operation.

Current traffic levels remain historically low at around 14% of normal

We’re getting on with that work, but the safety of our people remains a top priority, including social distancing. With new Government guidelines on that, too, we can now focus on how to make adjacent working and training safe.

Ensuring we have enough controllers for the sectors where we expect them to be needed most immediately, and making sure they feel confident to handle the increasing traffic, is a balancing act that we have to get right. We need to know we won’t be caught out if there is a quicker recovery in traffic.

More broadly, our airline and airport customers expect us to take this opportunity to find ways of doing things differently. The pressures of our normal operation – managing traffic in some of the world’s busiest and most congested airspace – always constrain our ability to try out new things, but we have the chance to do that now. So we’re looking at how to make the most of the opportunity opened up by uniquely low traffic levels to investigate efficiency improvements and try out different procedures safely. This is a truly exciting opportunity to see what we can do differently.

We absolutely have to ‘build back better’. The Government is clear on environmental priorities and that the aviation industry has to start doing things differently, rather than just talking about it. NATS has a good track record here, and we’ve made its own commitment through Sustainable Aviation to achieving net zero CO2 emissions for the industry by 2050 and we will be part of the Government’s new Jet Zero Board. And today, you may have seen from CANSO, representatives from across European aviation are calling on EU leaders to provide funding to support decarbonisation initiatives.

Modernising airspace is still our customers’ top priority. So we must keep the pressure on – the Swanwick Airspace Improvement Project (SAIP) AD6 joint consultation with Luton Airport is on schedule for October and I’m still hopeful that, with some funding assistance from the Government, our wider Future Airspace Strategy Implementation (FASI) programme, that the Airspace Change Organising Group (ACOG) is coordinating with the airports, can stay on track for this decade.

These few weeks will flash by, so we are working fast to see what will help our sustainability efforts while not constraining our controllers in their work or adding any more complexity to what they do.

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity – we will never have another chance like this to change and adapt to deliver lasting improvements and long term benefits from this crisis.

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