Lost pilots, the stubborn French and £80k salaries: what you didn’t know about air traffic control

Last week the body in charge of the UK’s airspace was preparing to handle a record number of planes: as the British school holidays kicked off in earnest, 8,800 flights would arrive, depart or pass through our skies. It would be the country’s busiest day in aviation history.

Only, it never happened.

“We actually broke an earlier record on June 20 with 8,747 planes, and we thought we would break it again but we were about 20 short in the end,” explains Martin Rolfe, CEO of NATS, formerly National Air Traffic Services.  

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In numbers: Britain’s busiest day for flights


“It depends on the number of business jets flying, and the weather. There is a decent chance we might break it this Friday [today], or maybe the bank holiday Friday in August.”

NATS announced the prospective record as a way of highlighting the urgent need to modernise the UK’s ageing airspace structure.

“The record is a double-edged sword,” says Rolfe. “From a thriving economy point of view it’s very exciting to break the record – we host more traffic than any other air space on earth, considering our size. We’re a funnel for the North Atlantic.

“We’re very proud of what we achieve safely but at the same time, the trend can’t continue without a massive overhaul of the airspace,” he says. “We’re still working to a design from the Fifties, a period where aircraft were using their own navigation systems and we knew where they were to within about half a mile. Now, all aircraft are equipped with much more accurate GPS. We know where aircraft are, and they know where to fly probably to within 20cm.”

Rolfe explains that we are giving aircraft airspace corridors to fly in that provide miles of buffers, even though they are capable of existing much closer together. It’s a waste and it’s one that NATS and the Department of Transport think will contribute to a steep rise in flight delays in the coming years.

The difficulty, Rolfe says, is the people on the ground. He says that, on a policy level, the Government is supportive of modernising the airspace, but when it comes down to a local level – for example, at Heathrow – it becomes an incredibly contentious issue.

The UK's skies are getting busier

The UK’s skies are getting busier

“If you take any airport to maximise capacity, you would probably have more routes in and out of it, and this means more people would potentially be affected. It becomes very sensistive to local people,” says Rolfe.

“But we can now fly planes a lot more accurately so that they can fly over rivers, estuaries, industrial areas and reduce the number of people affected. The modern aircraft are also much quieter and can ascend and descend much quicker.

“There will also remain some avenues that are busier than others – all planes have to get to an airport, and there will only be one best route between Heathrow and Edinburgh – but with more routes we can alternate them.”

Five things you didn’t know about air traffic control

1. France is the only country not to use English in the skies

“The good news for the UK is that aviation is done in English around the world, except in France,” said Rolfe. Yes, the international language for pilot and air traffic control communication is English. But our stubborn cousins over the Channel still insist on sticking to their native tongue.

2. The problem with drones could be easily solved

Drones pose a huge challenge to air traffic controllers. “We absolutely recognise that drones are from on an economy and future business point of view a great thing but people need to use them responsibly,” said Rolfe. “Most of the times when reported near to aircraft, people just don’t understand the rules.” He added that working with drone manufacturers can be applying “geofences” to drones so they are unable to function as soon as they near commercial airspace.

Drones are an issue – but they need not be

Drones are an issue – but they need not be

© Jakub Gojda / Alamy Stock Photo/Jakub Gojda / Alamy Stock Photo

3. Summer weather is worse than winter weather

“Weather is the biggest thing we have to contend with, and it’s in the summer when the thunderstorms come that we have the most difficulty,” said Rolfe. “Most pilots won’t fly through thunderstorm. Not only does it upset the passenger but it can be quite dangerous. The lightning is not so much the problem – more the turbulence, the up-drafts and the down-drafts. We have our own Met Office forecaster, and though we’re getting better at predicting them, it’s still a bit of a black art.”

4. Light aircraft sometimes wander into busy flight paths

“We generally are able to track them down, sometimes with the help of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and have a chat with them,” said Rolfe. “People in Cessnas and light aircraft. They will take off and either get lost because something happens to them or they haven’t briefed themselves well enough and they fly into controlled airspace and then we have to fly passenger jets a different path. We go into local flying clubs and talk about the dangers of flying into our space.”

Private pilots sometimes get lost

Private pilots sometimes get lost

Credit: Colin Underhill / Alamy Stock Photo/Colin Underhill / Alamy Stock Photo

5. Strikes in France hit British flights

“When our European counterparts go on strike, the traffic still needs to go somewhere so our skies can become quite congested,” said Rolfe. “The French are particularly prone to going on strike and it can in essence shut down huge swathes of air space above the country.”

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