Annual savings of around one million tonnes of aviation CO2 steer NATS towards its 2020 emissions target
Air traffic over the UK (photo: NATS)
Wed 21 Jan 2015 – UK air traffic services company NATS has reported aviation-related CO2 reductions now amount to around one million tonnes each year as a result of improvements and efficiency gains introduced since 2006. Based on current prices, NATS claims to have saved airlines over £115 million ($174m) in fuel costs and achieved an average 4.3% cut in CO2 per flight, which means it has exceeded its own interim target of a 4% reduction by the end of 2014. The company says this has been accomplished as a result of changes to UK airspace that allow for more direct routes and improved vertical profiles, the use of more efficient procedures such as continuous climbs and descents by aircraft, and the introduction of new air traffic control technologies. However, reaching its longer term goal of a 10% cut per flight by 2020 will be a tough challenge, admits NATS.
Over 300 changes to UK airspace have been made over the past six years in an effort to find better and more efficient routes for airlines, it reports. More flexible use of military airspace alone accounts for savings of around 30,000 tonnes of CO2 and the introduction of the GAATS+ tools that allow controllers to offer airlines the most efficient altitudes for flights crossing the North Atlantic is responsible for further savings of over 110,000 tonnes.
“This is an important stage in our long-term programme to reach the 10% target,” NATS Head of Environment and Community Affairs Ian Jopson told GreenAir. “To be honest, when we set the target back in 2008 we didn’t exactly know how we were going to achieve it. But we’ve engaged with the airline and airport sectors to identify where the inefficiencies are and how to manage them out of the system. Achieving the interim target – in fact beating it – gives us a lot of confidence.”
However, said Jopson, big challenges lie ahead and even the large investment – in the region of £600 million ($900m) – in new air traffic technologies that is planned through till 2020 will not be enough to get NATS to the target. “We are still looking for other efficiencies to meet the gap and other innovative ways to further reduce air traffic CO2,” he said.
The task is made more difficult as many of the benefits that have been already delivered are what can be described as the low-hanging fruit. This is coupled with an expected rise in air traffic demand after the industry downturn. NATS has just reported a 2.2% increase in 2014 traffic volumes compared to the previous year, handling over 2.2 million flights. December saw non-transatlantic overflights grow by a sizeable 8.5%, followed by transatlantic arrivals and departures with a 6% rise. Domestic traffic grew for the second consecutive month and scheduled traffic rose at 12 out of the 15 airports where NATS operates air traffic control.
“You almost have to over deliver in order to compensate for the increase in traffic,” said Jopson.
Many of the changes NATS has made have been on a relatively small scale and now NATS is planning a major undertaking that involves a root-and-branch redesign of the airspace over the south-east of England – in particular the London area, the second busiest in the world – and the Manchester area.
“Airspace is our infrastructure and as is the case not just in the UK but also in many parts of the world, it needs to be updated and the very latest technologies, such as performance-based navigation, put in place,” explained Jopson.
With fuel making up 30-40% of their overall costs, airlines have had enough of an incentive to work closely with NATS to deliver savings in both fuel and emissions, said Jopson. In the lead up to 2020, he foresees an even greater requirement to reduce emissions given the prospect of a global market-based measure to cap aviation emissions coming into force. “Airlines will always have a need to collaborate with us to reduce fuel burn and emissions.”
Jopson also expects to see major progress on the delivery of the Single European Sky by 2020. “We are already starting to deploy some of the SESAR operational enhancements and we have been closely involved in some of the environmental programmes and contributing to the research,” he reported. “We will deploy a lot of the concepts in our airspace redesign and we are now doing a huge amount of work on cross-border arrival management. Cross-border collaboration is something we need to be doing a lot more of in the future and will be important in filling the gap to achieve our 10% target. The Single European Sky is the vehicle for that.”
In addition to the 10% goal, NATS has also been set a financially incentivised operational and environmental efficiency target by its regulator, the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Narrower in scope as it applies just to UK domestic airspace, the so-called 3Di (three-dimensional inefficiency) metric measures the route and trajectory of every flight, which is accorded a score – the lower the score, the higher the efficiency.
The target score for 2014 was reduced and for the first half of 2014, NATS achieved a rolling average score of 23.3, lower than the 23.7 for the same period in 2013 but higher than the tougher 23.0 score set by the CAA.
Jopson said the numbers were still being crunched for the year as a whole but he is confident of being close to the target. If NATS achieves its target scores for the period 2012 to 2014 then around 600,000 tonnes of CO2 will have been saved.
He said NATS has now agreed targets with the CAA for the years up until 2020. “Not only have we been given more stringent targets, they have tightened the whole regime,” he added. “This shows how important the regulator and our airline customers view our environmental programme.”
Although improving flight efficiency and reducing emissions are the prime concern for NATS’ environmental efforts, there is currently a focus on dealing with noise concerns around UK airports. However, said Jopson: “Reducing emissions and aircraft noise don’t have to be mutually exclusive – a lot of the work we have been doing on noise respite, for example on track alternation, has shown we can still deliver emissions savings.
“Performance-based navigation both reduces emissions and also concentrates noise, and we have to understand how we can manage that so we can get the best outcome for communities as well as the industry.”