Martin Rolfe NATS blogs illustrate the irreconcilable conflict between increased plane noise and community tolerance

Martin Rolfe, the CEO of NATS, writes blogs – putting the NATS points of view. He talks largely to an industry audience, but has to try to avoid irritating members of the public who find being noisily overflown unacceptable.  A couple of these blogs are below, and a response sent to some complainants.  The thing that stands out is the language used by the airspace management industry. They like to hide behind the complexity of the process, hoping this will obscure details and make it difficult for the public to understand. Both NATS and the CAA have the difficulty that they get their money from the airlines, and it is not in their interests to do anything other than benefit them. Both realise they have a real problem with the amount of anger, upset, misery and opposition there now is to exposure to high levels of aircraft noise. Both have a real problem in attempting to cram ever more flights, ever more flight paths – and concentrated flight paths – into the skies over crowded areas. Unfortunately for them, most of the UK – the south east in particular – is densely populated. There ARE no empty areas for flight paths to over fly in the south east. So the only thing on offer is to try and tweak the noise a bit, shift it slightly from one place to another, and make communities fight it out  between themselves as to who is to be worst affected. The concept of “enough is enough” is not in the mindset of the CAA or of NATS.

Comments on the blogs, and links to relevant information on them, below – in red.


Talking Heathrow, noise and airspace change

Blog by Martin Rolfe, (Chief Executive Officer of NATS)

8 June 2016

One thing becomes very obvious when you try to explain how airspace works – how very complicated it is, and how very difficult it is to explain without live radar in front of you to demonstrate it.

I went to Westminster last night with the CEO of Heathrow to meet a group of MPs from Surrey and Berkshire, and their case workers to discuss what their constituents are telling them is more flights and more noise over their homes.

We had various maps with us, but when you’re only looking at the Heathrow arrivals tracks when the wind is from the east, or the tracks on one departure route, it’s hard to convey the sheer complexity of the flight paths of 3,500 flights every day in and out of London’s airports. [Hiding behind the complexity is an old trick that the airspace management people play all the time. It is not THAT complicated, really.  Not so complex that you cannot give people straight answers. AW comment].

We reconfirmed that there had been a change within the existing airspace on the easterly departure route known as Compton, [this is the change that Heathrow etc denied was happening for about a year, and finally had to admit to] not a change to the route but to the procedures used to direct air traffic along it. As traffic increases, it is helping systemise the traffic flow and separate it from arrivals flows, to make it more predictable and therefore safer.  [Heathrow says it is full. There are no more flights per year.  So why is there now more traffic?  It does not seem unavoidable.]

There is currently a great deal of work going on to redesign the route completely which is being discussed through the Heathrow Community Noise Forum (HCNF), as it has never been easy for aircraft to fly. That will be a matter for public consultation in due course – because that’s what we are required to do by the CAA when a route change is being proposed. [This is all taking an inordinately long time, and members of the HCNF are concerned that the dragging out of the process is a deliberate means to avoid reducing the new noise problem for many communities]. 

There haven’t been any other changes to routes, although we pointed out that flight patterns within controlled airspace change almost daily in much the same way as patterns of road traffic change daily.  [The CAA and NATS do not have a definition of what an airspace change is, that matches the public perception.  Technically a lot of different use of a piece of airspace does not class as “change”, while for the over-flown public different heights, numbers of planes, times of day etc all constitute change – as well as the actual track of the planes over the ground. The CAA  and NATS use semantics to confuse the public. Link and the CAA consultation proposes setting some sort of definitions  Link ].

Yesterday’s thunderstorms over the south-east, for instance, will have changed the pattern of flights considerably as aircraft prefer to fly around storms rather than through them. Recent air traffic control strikes in France and Belgium mean aircraft file flight plans to avoid the airspace that’s affected. Military activity in their training areas around the UK and France can also mean re-routes to avoid these areas and altogether there is currently more use of southerly routes as airlines seek to avoid trouble spots in eastern Europe and beyond.
So there is always an ebb and flow in air traffic which will vary according to the current circumstances.  [Fair enough, but people around Heathrow are within perhaps 30 miles of the airport, and it is unlikely there is much difference in flight paths that close to an airport, due to thunderstorms].

There is also, always, a lot of work going on to try to mitigate the impact of noise for people on the ground. We told the MPs of our ongoing efforts to modernise UK airspace, which will help us get flights higher, quicker and move the holding points higher and further out. [Sounds good. What this does not say is that  it means narrow flight paths that subject those under them to an intense level of noise, to the extent that it can not merely be “annoying” but it affects quality of life, and even health.  See link for health cost and  AEF health report ]   

Inevitably, suspicion that change will make things worse has made it harder to convince people it’s a good thing, and the Government’s now going to consult on policy to guide future airspace planning in the autumn which means we need to wait for that before we try to move on with design.  [The CAA, NATS etc are going to have to play one community off against another, so see where they can put flight paths with the least community opposition. The south east of England is very densely populated. There are NO areas where people do not live.  It is not in reality possible to position narrow flight paths, intensely used, without negatively affecting people.  To think otherwise is cloud cuckoo land thinking….]

Heathrow is exploring a steeper angle of descent, and the possibility of landing further down the runway, to keep aircraft higher for longer. And we are now managing arrivals from much further out which means that holding time is already being reduced which cuts noise as well as CO2.  [Experts have acknowledged that the 3.2 degree descent is just a bit of PR, and has virtually no effect at all – possibly making the noise nearer the airport a bit worse. This is just an attempt to persuade the public that efforts are being made to lessen the noise impacts. Link for details ]. 

We told the MPs that we don’t have any say in the amount of traffic in the skies  [This is an odd statement. NATS is 51% owned by the airlines, or Heathrow, or NATS staff, with the government owning 51%  Link  so no control?] – and London’s airports (except Heathrow which is already full) are all getting busier every year. We are expecting an additional 40,000 flights this year in and out of the five major London airports, on top of the 1.14 million flights already there. Our job is to deal with the traffic we’re presented with, safely and within the airspace we control.  [Not forgetting that NATS is paid by the airlines for their services, and get paid more if there are more planes. Link   Also, the CAA is paid for entirely by the airlines.  Wikipedia states: “The UK Government requires that the CAA’s costs are met entirely from its charges on those whom it regulates. Unlike many other countries, there is no direct Government funding of the CAA’s work”.  Link  The CAA is a public corporation of the DfT.]

I also made the point that although we could accommodate change within existing airspace, you have to be mindful that any change will affect someone else. And as one of the caseworkers acknowledged, we all have to put our hands up and admit that as we all like to fly, the aircraft have to fly somewhere ….   [If the price of air travel was not so artificially low, paying no VAT and no fuel duty, the demand for flights would not be so great. And if the UK is to keep within carbon targets, the amount of flying we all do needs to be restricted.  Link  ]


Below is a reply from Martin Rolfe to people who complained about the above blog.

Martin Rolfe response to comments on blogThis says:

  • The way the aircraft fly is entirely down to the airline and the captain.
  • The engines are down to the manufacturer and the airline
  • The noise contour mapping at an airport is down to the airport

So that leaves absolutely no responsibility for the CAA or for NATS ?    Very strange ….

Earlier blog: 


Emerging challenges

Blog by Martin Rolfe (CEO of NATS)

9 March 2016

Yesterday I joined colleagues at the World ATM Congress for a discussion about some of the key challenges facing those of us in the world of air traffic management in the years to come. I focused on three that I think will force us to think and behave differently in future.

The first of those is our responsiveness to political developments. Geopolitics is having a growing influence on traffic flows, in a way that I think few of us predicted just a few years ago. This is putting real pressure on some ANSPs and presenting a significant challenge at a network level. We need to ensure, as an industry, that we focus on developing our capabilities and readiness to respond to these challenges, increasing our flexibility and working together to find solutions that increase the resilience of the network to unpredictable changes in demand.

The second of these is capacity and the efficiency of our airspace vs aircraft noise and the impact on local communities. This challenge is something we’re particularly facing at the moment in the UK but we will not be alone in this. Our customers [that means owners, as 46% of their ownership is airlines and Heathrow, with another 5% being NATS staff] want us to help them reduce fuel burn and improve their flight profiles and indeed we are regulated to ensure we do so.  [NATS gets paid more for cutting flight distances and fuel burn, regardless of negative impacts for those overflown.  Link  NATS says:  “In 2012, 3Di was officially adopted to financially incentivise NATS’ environmental performance as part of our regulatory licence to operate air traffic control “. There is no motivation to cut fuel burn overall, or aviation carbon emissions overall – just per flight, in order to maximise airline profits].  We also need to modernise our airspace design if we are to deal with the forecast growth in air traffic over the coming decade and beyond, as my colleague Juliet wrote on here only the other day.  [To fit the Committee on Climate Change limit for aviation expansion, to stay within legally binding UK targets, the numbers of flights should not expand more than about 55% by 2050.  The Airports Commission said 36% more.   Link.  But the CAA and NATS etc are working on much higher growth rates than that.   See Annexe D figures of DfT forecasts  Link   And NATS on Growth  Link  ]

However, I’m also very conscious that changes to airspace, particularly in and around airports, can have a significant impact on communities on the ground. For NATS, this is one of the main challenges we face in the coming years. We need to modernise our airspace but we need to work together, with both our customers and local communities, to ensure we find solutions that strike the right balance between the needs of the country and our customers and the impact on local communities who live close to our airports.  [What does this actually mean?  We hear the same language from all over the aviation industry. Weasel words of all sorts.  To call a spade a spade, it means how much aircraft noise can a community be subjected to, before it becomes clear that it is intolerable and excessive?   You will NEVER hear any mention whatsoever of curtailing growth plans, or scaling them back, or actually reducing the overall level of noise.  It is only about trying to find ways to spread the noise around enough that enough areas are not made virtually uninhabitable.  Nothing is ever offered that would reduce the growth, or the profitability, of the industry. ] 

The third issue I raised is the surge in use of drones, or Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS). We are seeing a significant rise in the volumes of drones being flown not just in the UK but all over the world. There are a number of different facets to this – from raising awareness with hobbyists who may want to fly a drone occasionally and aren’t necessarily familiar with the existing rules of the sky; through to finding ways to allow the commercial delivery services envisioned by the likes of Google and Amazon, as well as the longer-term integration of larger RPAS alongside civilian aircraft, which we successfully tested as part of Project Claire, a SESAR project, late in 2015.

We have taken a leading role in work in this area to date and will continue to do so. There are big opportunities here as well as challenges and we want to work in partnership with our customers, regulators and the RPAS community, to ensure that we can enable safe growth and integration of this industry alongside the existing aviation industry.

All of the above issues present different challenges to overcome. However, one thing they have in common is that they are not unique to NATS.  [Of course not.  NATS works closely with the airports, the airlines, the CAA and the government.  That is scarcely news]. They are issues that we as an industry are all likely to face in one form or another and it is important for us to come together to discuss how we can go about solving them. The key to addressing them successfully will be to ensure that we don’t look at them from an insular Air Traffic Management perspective, but instead engage with and work in partnership with others right across the aviation industry and beyond to find the solutions that will help the industry to evolve and grow, safely and sustainably.  [That might even admit that some of the growth is just not going to be socially acceptable. Difficult to envisage the industry accepting anything like that].