More fundamental than changed flight paths
A revolution is taking place in the way aircraft use airspace. And it will have a lasting impact on local communities. Flight paths are changing across the world but the change is much more fundamental than simply moving routes around. New technology is enabling aircraft to be flown in a fundamentally new way. And this will bring significant benefits to the aviation industry.
The way the industry is looking to cater for the predicted explosion in air travel over the coming decades is through making more efficient use of airspace. For much of Western Europe and America, think airspace change, not new runways.
The airspace changes are made possible through the introduction of new technology called Performance Based Navigation (PBN). In essence, it means that aircraft can be guided more precisely as they land and take-off. Flight paths will be along a few, predicable, concentrated routes. This will allow more aircraft to use an airport, save on fuel costs, reduce CO2 emissions from each aircraft, improve the resilience of airports and probably cut the number of air traffic controllers required.
Given the scale of the benefits, it is little wonder the aviation industry is investing huge sums in PBN. In Europe the industry has invested 2.5 billion euros in PBN on which it expects to get a return of 4.4 billion euros: https://ec.europa.eu/transport/sites/transport/files/modes/air/consultations/doc/2014-01-31-sesar/sju1.pdf. In America, its is estimated PBN improvements have accrued $1.6 billion of benefits since 2010 and it is expected that by 2030, the total benefits of PBN improvements will be $160.6 billion, at a cost of $35.8 billion to the FAA and the aviation industry. 190 countries across the world have introduced PBN.
PBN is not, in my view, an optional process. It will become an integral part of the aviation industry. Check out this video: https://youtu.be/5eMENLKYY6o(if you remember the cowboy and war trailers of the 1960s, you’ll enjoy the dramatic music and voice-over!).
PBN will be hard to reverse. The old technology which guided planes – ground-based systems – is being replaced by something quite different: satellite-based systems. This is a world away from simply replacing one flight path with an alternative one. It is explained in this video: https://youtu.be/FOmyNC8hvOk
PBN will have huge impacts on local communities. Narrow, predicable concentrated routes will create noise ghettos – as has happened at many American airports where PBN has been introduced in a brutal way. At a number of these airports residents have been in revolt and some of them, often backed by their local authorities are taking the Federal aviation authorities to court. The outcomes of the cases are as yet uncertain but, if the residents are successful, it is unlikely that the courts will order that PBN is no longer used. It is more likely the courts will order the flight paths are shared around more equitably or possibly limit the introduction of PBN routes over new communities.
PBN, introduced sensitively, could assist local communities. If there were multiple concentrated routes, rotated regularly, each local community could enjoy guaranteed periods of respite which many don’t get – and yearn for – at the moment.
I’m all too aware that the price of getting such respite is enduring some periods of intense concentration of aircraft overhead: the sort of thing which happens in West London at present when planes landing at Heathrow switch runways at 3pm to give residents a half day’s break from the noise.
But we do need to be brutally honest with ourselves about what the alternatives are……and are not. PBN will become, is becoming, a fact of life. It can either deliver one concentrated route and everything which that entails – noise ghettos; no relief at all for those communities under it; blatant unfairness – or delivers the equitable option: multiple routes, rotated to provide respite.
Some campaigners have argued that they want to see dispersal rather than concentration. I understand that argument but I’m not really sure that is on the table under PBN. The respected former Concorde pilot Jock Lowe is of the view that it would be asking too much of the technology to fire off individual planes in different directions to allow for planned dispersal.
The aim is to introduce PBN at all airports in the UK over the next 10-12 years. The Department for Transport is working closely with NATS, the CAA, the airlines and the airports to make it happen. It is overseen at the highest level by a board chaired by the aviation minister. Key community groups, such as the Aviation Communities Forum and HACAN, have ongoing discussions with the Department and industry stakeholders as the plans are being drawn up. Indeed, HACAN has initiated seminars and working groups to explore how PBN can benefit communities.
NATS have made clear that respite is possible under PBN. Particularly in the congested airspace of London and the South East, the number of multiple routes will be limited but some respite will be possible. And Heathrow is committed to respite being central to its flight path changes.
Fundamental changes to our airspace will be made over the next few years. They will have lasting changes for communities. HACAN has been involved in trying to influence them for over a decade. We will continue to be so to try to ensure PBN-inspired changes benefits communities as well as the industry.
Change on this scale can be frightening for local people. And there is an understandably tendency to do nothing and hope it will go away or to believe we can stop this gigantic wave of change driven relentlessly, as it is, by the onward march of new technology. What we can do is strive to shape that change. I fully believe PBN can bring benefits to local communities. But we need to campaign for them.