Transport and the Olympics

Written evidence from NATS (TOG 14)


1. Introduction

1.1 NATS welcomes this opportunity to contribute to the Committee’s call for evidence. We note the Transport Committee’s previous report on the ODA’s Draft Transport Plan in 2007; we welcome the chance to consider how aviation will compliment the transport arrangements for the 2012 London Olympics and we support the Government’s objective to improve the passenger experience, notably through greater resilience of Air Traffic Management (ATM) supporting airport operations.

1.2 Airspace is part of the UK’s national transport infrastructure. In 2010 NATS handled 2.1m commercial flights; UK airports handled over 210 million passengers and 2.3m tonnes of freight.

1.3 NATS is the UK’s leading provider of air traffic management (ATM) services. Under a licence from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), NATS provides en-route air traffic services in the UK and the eastern North Atlantic; we also provide air traffic services under competitive commercial contracts at 15 UK airports. NATS seeks the most efficient use of airspace to maximise use (capacity), minimise delay, minimise environmental impact (noise and CO2 emissions) and maximise flight efficiency (less fuel burn), all while maintaining a high standard of safety.

1.4 We work in partnership with airlines, airports and other ATM providers in the UK and Europe to ensure ATM procedures deliver optimal efficiency. The success of the aviation industry supporting the Olympics requires co-operation and coordination across the industry including, specifically, airports within the London area and the major airlines operating into them, as well as the CAA, DfT, MoD and Home Office.

1.5 NATS is confident that we will have done everything within our control to mitigate the increased levels of air traffic and any potential disruption. We continue to work closely with the wider industry and with the CAA and Government to ensure that the right mechanisms and responses are in place.  

2. Preparing for Olympics traffic

2.1 The Olympic and Paralympic Games in July and August 2012 will create additional demand on airports and airspace in and around the London Terminal Manoeuvring Area (LTMA). In addition, the Government has decided that additional airborne security measures are required to address the potential threat to high profile targets around London.

2.2 Forecast levels of traffic reflect the fact that London is more accessible to commercial, private and business aviation flights on daytrips from Europe than previous Olympics venues. In view of this, the DfT is requiring that all flights operating to 40 airfields designated ‘Olympic’ reception sites, have allocated runway slots for arrivals and departures. These slots are allocated and managed by Airport Coordination Ltd (ACL). While this is independent of NATS and is ACL’s responsibility, we provided expert advice to the Dft and CAA on risks associated with the available options.

2.3 Runway slot allocation is key to balancing capacity with demand and ACL has agreed to share slot allocation data with NATS, in order for us to model the known picture and identify choke points within airspace routes early on. It is then anticipated that ACL will use this modelling to restrict further slot allocations for any flights planning to access the identified choke points. (See 7.4 below).

2.4 In total, NATS is planning for some 4,000 additional flights in UK airspace during the Olympics period (based on analysis by Atkins commissioned by the DfT). These are likely to be concentrated in the periods immediately before and after the Olympics. We have developed and are implementing plans to deal with this high additional level of traffic, and we have the capability and expertise to safely manage this additional traffic in already busy skies.

2.5 However, delay and disruption should be expected during the peak periods of traffic demand; the CAA acknowledged this when setting NATS Service targets for 2012 with a proposed average per flight delay target of 26.1 seconds during the 2.5 months of the Olympics period (compared with annual targets of 11.5 seconds for 2011 and 12.5 seconds for 2013/14). (Note that the average delay per flight across Europe as a whole currently stands at around 70 seconds per flight.)

2.6 Disruption may also result from responses to aviation security threats, which will be co-ordinated and authorised through the MoD. NATS is not responsible for managing the security of airspace or deciding what security response is required – this will be a MoD operation. Further disruption may result from significant weather events (eg thunderstorms) which disrupt the planned flows of traffic, creating additional complexity which must be safely managed, and upsetting the planned schedules.

2.7 It is worth noting that from NATS’ perspective, the additional challenge is essentially to the increase in traffic in the airways rather than at the airports. Heathrow for example already operates to 98% capacity and the risk to those operations is through an increase in traffic in surrounding airspace rather than an increase in arrivals and departures. With the airport already effectively operating at capacity, any disruption to an already fragile system may take longer to recover than would be the case outside of the Olympic period.

2.8 The main challenges NATS is preparing for in addition to normal operations are:

Ø Flights for 500,000 overseas spectators and ‘Games family’ members.

Ø 150 Heads of State flights.

Ø 700 additional commercial flights.

Ø 3,000 additional business jet movements.

Ø 1,500 helicopter movements into London per day.

Ø Mix of traffic including TV broadcast, commercial, private and security-related flights.

Ø New airspace procedures and routes introduced for the Olympic period.

Ø Security Airspace/restrictions covering the SE of England.

2.9 NATS’ role is to maintain its excellent safety record and standards, while managing the expected increase in air traffic in controlled airspace throughout the Olympic period as efficiently as possible.

2.10 We will liaise and provide advice to organisations across the aviation industry to ensure a co-ordinated approach to a safe efficient operation; this includes using the NATS Air Traffic Incident Crisis and Communications Cell which will be open 24/7 for the duration of the Olympic period.

2.11 Importantly, we will work with the DfT and CAA to maintain regular dialogue and share forward planning information with key contributors such as Eurocontrol and the Met Office.

2.12 Changes in flows and procedures in the UK cannot be managed in isolation and require significant coordination with our European ATC neighbours.  Since the earliest stages of temporary airspace design we have worked closely with our neighbours and Eurocontrol to integrate the temporary ATC operation.

2.13 In addition, Eurocontrol, in its role of European Network Manager, has flow management tools and expertise to help understand the possible flow scenarios across Europe that the industry will need to manage during the Olympics period. 

3. Roles & Responsibilities

3.1 NATS’ role in accommodating air traffic requirements over the Olympic period includes:

Ø Managing the increase in air traffic in controlled airspace as efficiently as possible, while maintaining safety and service to existing customers.

Ø Liaison with, and advice to, organisations across the aviation industry to ensure a co-ordinated approach.

Ø Establishing a new NATS Olympic Operations Room as the Olympic Airspace Management Cell (See 5.2 below).

Ø Maintaining dialogue with the DfT and CAA to share forward planning information with key contributors including Eurocontrol and the Met Office.

3.2 Other areas of responsibility handled by organisations other than NATS include:

Ø Airspace policy – DfT and CAA.

Ø Implementation and enforcement of Olympics security restrictions – MoD, Home Office, DfT and CAA.

Ø Management of security incidents – MoD.

Ø Management of non-commercial or General Aviation (GA) traffic. within the security restricted zones - MoD.

Ø Allocation of runway slots at the 40 airports – ACL Ltd.

Ø Service quality at airports and decisions about allocation of airport capacity in the event of disruption - Airport Operator.

Ø Flight and diversion planning - Aircraft Operator.

4. Temporary Controlled Airspace

4.1 In order to maintain NATS’ excellent service record, we need to maintain the capacity of the major airports in the core LTMA, while serving the other commercial airports that will attract flights for the Olympics. The most practical way of doing this is to create additional capacity to satisfy demand, especially from the expected increase in private/business Jet flights, in airspace not currently used for commercial operators.

4.2 NATS therefore submitted an Airspace Change Proposal, which was approved by the CAA last November, for a temporary airspace change to allow NATS controllers to safely manage and integrate the significant potential increase in extra flights to around 40 airports in the South East of England while continuing to serve the main London airports. 

4.3 The temporary airspace, which has taken two years to develop and has been modelled on the forecast additional traffic flows, includes new holding areas and associated routes for the Farnborough area, Oxford, Biggin Hill, Rochester and Southend airports.

4.4 There are additional routes for executive jets and helicopters, and additional holding stacks. The design provides five additional radar and co-ordinator positions within Terminal Control to manage these temporary arrival/departure routes, and the new "offload" airborne holding areas.

4.5 The CAA, which must balance requests for more controlled airspace with its obligation of fairness to all airspace users, has approved these changes and NATS believes we have achieved as much additional airspace as we can reasonably expect to be granted by the CAA. The new airspace allows for security and air policing restrictions required by the Government. 

4.6 Training for around 400 air traffic controllers begins in April 2012. There is a significant programme of education planned to help private pilots understand the temporary airspace in order to help them avoid infringing it. NATS is also modifying its internal safety tools, such as the Controlled Airspace Infringement Tool (CAIT) to accommodate the new airspace.

4.7 NATS has agreed with trade unions for leave restrictions to be put in place, in addition to an overtime agreement, which will cover the operational training requirements for the new Olympic airspace, and the manning of our operational units during the peak traffic demand forecast periods.

5. Military requirements

5.1 Military intercept procedures will need to be seen, tested and integrated with civil procedures. NATS has attended several workshops to understand the MoD requirements and advise on civil impact of various operational options. Key to the MoD success will be safely interfacing with current civil operations within congested airspace.

5.2 NATS is providing the operational facilities for the Olympic Airspace Management Cell which is paid for by the DfT, and resourced and managed by the MoD. This cell will allow the MoD to police the security airspace and control airborne security flights in relation to any threat detected or anticipated.

6. Audit/Reviews

6.1 PWC conducted an external audit of the NATS Olympics project in the autumn of 2011. They issued their report in early January 2012 and were positive in their findings with one observation that military/civil procedures should be tested ahead of the Olympics in a live environment. While this is of course desirable, it may result in significant disruption to civil commercial operators.

6.2 The CAA and MoD are currently discussing what rehearsals they would wish to undertake, and NATS is modelling the impact to ensure that any decision taken by the CAA/MoD, is understood in terms of disruption to civil operations.

7. Simulation


7.1 Key to balancing capacity with the demand is airport slot allocation, managed by ACL Ltd. NATS conducted visits to all airfields in the SE of England to ascertain their anticipated movement numbers during the Olympics. NATS then held 2 weeks of simulation with operational controllers from Swanwick and supporting airfields, using anticipated airfield data mapped on to the new temporary Olympics airspace.

7.2 From these simulations, NATS provided advice to ACL Ltd on what maximum individual runway Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) capacity should be declared in order to maximise the airspace capacity. At this time, allocating slots based on aircraft routeing was being considered as a means of adding resilience.

7.3 ACL subsequently advised NATS that this was not being progressed as it was too open to misuse and could not be enforced. However, arrangements are now in place for ACL to share the arrival and departure flight plan information with NATS, in order for us to identify choke points within airspace routes early on. It is then anticipated that ACL will use this modelling to restrict further slot allocations or to plan alternative routes for any flights planning to access the identified choke points.

7.4 These initial simulations nonetheless provided NATS with useful modelling from which we have developed airspace and procedures that will be introduced to provide additional capacity during the Olympics.

8. Capacity & Resilience

8.1 Under normal weather and operating conditions and assuming compliance with slot regulations, NATS is confident that there is sufficient capacity in the ATM system to adequately accommodate the additional expected Olympics traffic without disruption.

8.2 Although the new temporary controlled airspace will provide additional capacity, it should nonetheless be anticipated that additional ATM regulations will be required during peak periods with potentially significant delays during peak periods. The reasons may include one, or a combination, of a variety of factors such as bad weather, MoD security flights, runway over-demand, non-compliance with the ACL slot regulations, or traffic bunching. All of these factors are beyond the control of NATS yet we must safely manage the resulting complexity.

8.3 The industry will need to be prepared, and the CAA will need to be flexible and responsive on a tactical basis throughout the Olympics period to the various types of disruption risk, particularly if more than one of these risks was to be coincident.

8.4 NATS has facilitated two cross industry workshops with airports, airlines, business jet operators, ACL, CAA, DfT and MoD to highlight risks and discuss an industry response. At these workshops, airports and airlines suggested mitigations that could be provided by the Government on a temporary basis which would significantly improve resilience or recovery from disruption, such as:

Ø Additional measures to ensure effective management and policing of additional airport slots

Ø Increased availability of military airspace

Ø Limited easing of the night jet ban restrictions

Ø Early vectoring off departure routes to enable increased runway capacity during recovery from disruption

Ø Prioritisation of certain aircraft types or flights over others.

8.5 The CAA has acknowledged the risks that various stakeholders raised, primarily around lack of resilience of London’s airspace today and the forecast additional Olympics traffic, combined with heightened security considerations, which meant there was a real and significant risk of widespread disruption. The CAA confirmed in February 2012, that it will progress, with industry, the risks identified which NATS does not have the authority to progress, including some of the items listed in 8.4 above.

8.6 The CAA and NATS have held discussions recently to establish the extent to which the restrictions on NATS imposed by its Licence and the Transport Act, might limit NATS’ ability to exercise the full range of operational decisions that its customers might desire, across a range of situations in which the resilience of the network was adversely affected. 

8.7 The overriding principle established by the Licence is that any operational decisions must not unduly favour any particular aircraft or class of aircraft user. However, some reasonable latitude is allowed to deviate from that principle, taking into account a need to operate the route network as a whole, as efficiently as practicable. 

8.8 The result from those recent meetings is that NATS is preparing a range of possible operational responses to potential scenarios designed to respond to customer needs, balanced with network efficiency.  These will be discussed further with the CAA such that the CAA will be able to give clear guidance as to the limits of latitude NATS will be able to exercise.

February 2012

Prepared 14th March 2012