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Airspace Modernisation Strategy

Volume 721: debated on Tuesday 1 November 2022

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the progress of the Airspace Modernisation Strategy.

It is a pleasure to have you chair this debate, Sir Edward. I think it is fair to assume that if I were to say to most of my constituents—and to most people—the words “airspace modernisation strategy”, they would not necessarily immediately assume that it directly affected them or was something they might even get emotional about. But they would be wrong.

For as long as I have been elected, my inbox has been full of reactions from people reaching out to me because of their distress at the constant noise, the lack of sleep and the pollution caused by the local airport, all of which are reasons why it is difficult to overstate the importance of the current airspace modernisation exercise to our communities, to our airports themselves and, of course, to the climate.

The airspace above the UK is, as we know, some of the world’s most complex. It has been variously described as an invisible motorway network or an infrastructure in the sky, and it is at least as crucial to the UK’s domestic and international connectivity as our more tangible ground-based networks. However, its use and air routes were designed in the 1950s for a very different generation of aircraft. Modern planes and their capabilities, and modern navigation technology, make it possible to move towards having more efficiency and environmental protection.

Aircraft can now follow clearer and less complicated structures, fly more directly and reduce emissions. With such changes and modernisation, passengers can be more confident that their holidays, business trips and deliveries will not be affected by costly delays, and that they will be offered quicker, quieter and cleaner flights, which is the aim of NATS, as a founder member of the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s global coalition for sustainable aviation. We are also told that changes will make it possible to achieve the 2050 net zero emissions target that the aviation industry has set itself.

Of course, we all want the modernisation exercise to succeed, but we also have to recognise that since it was launched the circumstances have changed. It will now be more complicated and more expensive. At a time when the aviation sector is recovering from the impact of covid, the additional costs will place an enormous burden on our airports. Along with NATS, they have to follow the Civil Aviation Authority’s seven-stage CAP1616 airspace change process. That is why I felt it was important to raise this issue and its implications, to examine progress, and to ask whether more can be done to support our communities and to put our airports through this exercise more smoothly and effectively.

I have a lot of constituents writing to me about flights coming into Heathrow at 4 o’clock in the morning. Does the hon. Lady share my concern, and the concerns of my constituents, that more and more special dispensations are being given to break the Heathrow airport night-flight quota? Does she agree that as part of this modernisation all airports in urban areas should be beginning to move towards an eight-hour night-flight ban?

I thank the hon. Lady for her important intervention on another aspect that is reflected in communications from my constituents. As the effects of the pandemic on air travel have lessened, so the number of night flights has increased, as have the number of complaints. Not to criticise the airports, but they seem unable to do anything about flights simply arriving late and companies being willing to pay to the levy. This is caused by delays because we have not yet modernised the airspace and flights are taking longer. I completely agree that that is an important effect of the delays that we have to take into account.

The pandemic damaged the profitability of our aviation and travel industries. It has made the cost of this modernisation exercise much more difficult to absorb. Just last year, on the announcement of £5.5 million of Government funding, the chief executive of the Airport Operators Association described airspace modernisation as,

“essential for aviation to build back better, so that a recovery of 2019 passenger levels does not come with 2019 noise impacts and carbon emissions.”

That is very much what the hon. Lady was talking about—the 2019 impacts on night flights and pollution. That is part of the reason why it is so important to the communities throughout the country who live beside or beneath airport flightpaths that we address this issue.

In Edinburgh, the situation is further complicated. The mailbox I mentioned is full of concerns and complaints, because new flightpath plans for Edinburgh airport have been the subject of planning consultation and rejection by the Civil Aviation Authority for more than five years. By the time the modernisation is completed—if it is completed on schedule—it will have been more than a decade since the exercise to modernise the approach and take-off routes was launched. That has had an impact on not just my constituents but those in adjoining constituencies who live under the approach. Their patience has been stretched.

It has been difficult for the airport, too. Please remember that Edinburgh airport is vital to the economy of not just the city but Scotland, in providing employment and connectivity around the globe. The delays have been expensive at a time when it has had to bear the impact of the pandemic, which I mentioned. It now finds itself, like every other airport in the country, competing for the best results it can get from the modernisation. We all want the Civil Aviation Authority to get this right—of course we do—but we want that within a timeframe that is acceptable for those who have lived with the effects of an outdated scheme for 20 years. We do not want them to wait 20 more.

Does the hon. Member agree that although the Civil Aviation Authority should obviously continue to have a primary duty in respect of safety, it should also have greater responsibility than it currently has for the environmental impacts of aviation on not just climate change but noise?

I do. I completely agree with the hon. Lady; she makes a good point. The environmental improvements that we are seeing in aircraft, such as the use of sustainable fuels and vertical take-off aircraft, all need to be taken into account in the modernisation. I am told by various organisations that they have not been, or that after the airport gets the latest instructions from the Civil Aviation Authority, something else is improved and, by the time they go back with the proposals, the goalposts have shifted again. It is vital that the latest technology and improvements are part of the modernisation and that we do not find that when it comes into place it is already out of date.

It is good that the hon. Lady has secured this debate. I represent Winchester; Southampton international airport is next door to me but not in my constituency. No matter how the flightpaths into that airport are changed, it will either please one group or community and displease another, or displease the first and please the second. It is only really moving the pieces around. The hon. Lady’s point about using modern technology for quieter, cleaner and more efficient aircraft has to be part of the airspace modernisation programme; otherwise we will go through a whole world of pain for little change in some regional airports, such as the one next door to my constituency.

I thank the hon. Member for his point, which is absolutely correct. There is a danger that we just shuffle everything around and a different community bears the brunt, whereas there are improvements being made that could improve the situation for everybody.

At this point, let me I thank and pay tribute to those in my constituency and around all our airports: without them, we would not be able to pursue this issue. Because they have been vocal about the impact, we are able to highlight just how important it is to get this right. It is our duty to look after the wellbeing of the people we represent. When I receive as many messages as I do talking about the decline in the mental and physical health of people living under the flightpaths, I believe it is our responsibility to do everything we can to ensure that this exercise is successful.

I have, then, several asks of the Government. Will they assure us that everything possible is being done to take into account the technological changes and overcome the problems and delays caused by the pandemic, when many airspace modernisation programmes—as part of this exercise—had to be paused?

I know that it will cost money, which is my second ask. The Airspace Change Organising Group has the financial backing to support our airports, many of which were devastated by the pandemic. They will not get back to 2019 levels and do not have the financial resources any more; they need more support.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, I ask that we do everything possible to improve communications and ensure that local communities are aware of how the plans are progressing and what the potential benefits are for them. CAP1616 places a greater emphasis on consultation with stakeholders than there was previously, but I know from my own constituents and local airport that that is not enough. I am told by the airport that the communications are not what they should be, and that that is slowing down their progress in getting in successful modernisation proposals and getting them through.

At a time of so much uncertainty, in politics and in our economy, we can surely never have had a stronger reminder that confidence and trust come from communication and listening. We need the clarity, communication and reassurance for our airports, our aviation industry and—most importantly—our communities that this exercise is progressing swiftly and being effectively organised.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) for securing a debate on one of the Department for Transport’s biggest infrastructure programmes in airspace modernisation.

First of all, I will set the scene for the airspace modernisation strategy. As the hon. Member told us, the UK’s airspace is among the most complex in the world, yet there has been little change to its overall structure since the 1950s. Without modernisation, our airspace will struggle to keep up with the growing demand for aviation. Airspace modernisation, as she said, can deliver quicker, quieter and cleaner journeys. It will use new technologies to create more direct routes, faster climbs and less need for holding stacks, so that the aviation industry can grow safely, customers do not experience the delays otherwise predicted, and there are opportunities to reduce noise and carbon emissions. I heard her three asks, and I hope that I can embed responses to them in my speech.

I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) for securing this debate, and I welcome the Minister to his new role. He says that airspace modernisation has a number of advantages, including for growth, but does he recognise that those of us with constituencies near Heathrow, including my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and me, will not see route changes because our constituents live under the locked-in approach paths to the airport? Airspace modernisation could lead to increased pressure for more flights arriving at Heathrow. The cap of 480,000 flights per annum could be at risk. We already experience flight noise for the bulk of every 24 hours; does he share my concern that there is a risk that we could experience more flights, albeit quieter ones?

I thank the hon. Lady for her kindness at the start of her comment, and for the point that she makes. That cap is in place. She is right that, through modernisation, there will be an ability to increase capacity. It might be best if I wrote to her to clarify, because I recognise that her constituents want certainty on this point.

Although a redesign of our airspace might not be as tangible as other major transport projects, it would nevertheless be a vital pillar of future growth of the aviation industry. CAP1616, the Civil Aviation Authority’s guidance document on airspace change, was introduced in 2018 to make the process fairer and more transparent, and to provide the opportunity for adequate engagement with local communities and other stakeholders impacted by airspace changes. I say that in reference to the third point that the hon. Member for Edinburgh West asked me about. The process rightly continues to be kept under review. Given the implications that airspace changes can have for safety, security and the environment, it is necessary for the programme to be subject to robust and transparent procedures.

The airspace modernisation strategy underpins the future development of the UK’s aviation sector. It provides clear direction on how to bring our ageing legacy airspace design up to date, and how to take it into the future, for modern aircraft and technology. On the future airspace strategy implementation, one of the most complex and pressing aspects of airspace modernisation is the need to redesign outdated flightpaths to and from our airports. The future airspace strategy implementation programme is a fundamental component of the airspace modernisation strategy. FASI is a UK-wide upgrade of terminal airspace, involving our 22 airports. The work to co-ordinate a more efficient airspace system is being done in collaboration with the Airspace Change Organising Group and National Air Traffic Services. Earlier this year, the Civil Aviation Authority accepted the second iteration of the Airspace Change Organising Group’s master plan for UK airspace change proposals in the airspace modernisation strategy.

On the hon. Lady’s second point, there is Government funding of £9.2 million to support these proposals and continue this important work. Edinburgh airport, which is in her constituency, received £484,500 of Government funding through the programme. The funding allows airports to remain in the FASI programme, and I am pleased to say that much progress has been made under that initiative.

Fortunately, the aviation industry is recovering. This year, traffic levels returned to 85% of pre-covid traffic, and some airports forecast that growth will exceed 2019 levels in just a few years’ time. It is therefore only right that we return to the “user pays” model, under which airports fund the modernisation of their airspace. Those costs may be passed on to customer airlines, but it will ultimately be the passengers who benefit from the changes through quicker, quieter and cleaner journeys.

I, too, welcome the Minister to his place. Would he agree that the modernisation strategy is an opportunity to acknowledge the damage done to the mental health of residents who live under flightpaths and are woken up at 4.30 am regularly? Does he agree that it is an opportunity to look at a longer night ban, and to consider and reduce the number of exemptions from the rules? Exemptions have been given to so many flights. It would be not just customers who benefited, but residents living under the flightpath near airports such as Heathrow.

I thank the hon. Member for her intervention, but I think it is right that I stick to the airspace modernisation strategy. I know she has concerns about night-time flights. I touched on the fact that the strategy gives us an opportunity to add more capacity, but that should not be seen as altering anything that works with regard to night-time flights. I take the point about the impact on residents, and on their mental health and wellbeing. That is why I welcome the fact that there is so much transparency and consultation. I know that the timescales may be frustrating, but it is important that everyone can have their say, particularly those most impacted.

I will move on to decarbonisation and jet zero, which the hon. Member for Edinburgh West touched on. As she will be aware, the UK has committed to an ambitious target to reach net zero emissions by 2050. The UK was the first major world economy to put such a target in law, and we continue to focus the efforts of our aviation industry on the jet zero strategy. Airspace modernisation will help us to reach that target by reducing delays and allowing aircraft to fly more direct routes. That will mean that aircraft burn less fuel and so reduce their carbon emissions. By moving to best-in-class aircraft and undertaking modernisation, we could deliver carbon dioxide savings of between 12% and 15% by 2050. Additionally, airspace modernisation will allow new technology to be introduced, such as performance-based navigation. That will improve the accuracy of aircraft flight and create opportunities to better avoid noise-sensitive areas and so provide residents with respite.

I turn to the Scottish regional approach and the benefits of airspace modernisation. Another key initiative of the airspace modernisation strategy is the deployment of free route airspace. Rather than crossing the upper airspace through a series of waypoints, aircraft can now fly on a direct flightpath between entry and exit points. That will reduce aircraft fuel burn and CO2 emissions. The first free route airspace in the UK was opened over Scottish airspace this year. Up to 2,000 flights use that crucial part of the UK’s airspace every day, and it supports 80% of transatlantic traffic, so NATS estimates that the change will save 12,000 tonnes of CO2 a year—the equivalent of the CO2 emissions from 3,500 family homes.

To safeguard airspace modernisation and its benefits, the Government have introduced new powers through the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Act 2021. I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh West for her engagement and support during the passage of that legislation. It allows the Secretary of State for Transport to direct an appropriate entity to progress or co-operate with an airspace change proposal, if doing so would assist in the delivery of the airspace modernisation strategy. Of course, the exercise of those powers will be carefully considered and progressed only when absolutely necessary.

To end, airspace modernisation is vital to unlocking the benefits of a growing UK aviation sector. Without modernising our airspace, we cannot realise benefits for passengers, communities, operators and the economy. The Government remain committed to delivering this key piece of infrastructure, and I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh West for raising this important subject.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.