Air traffic management and efficiency: A chat with NATS

Environmental Infrastructure

Manoeuvring an aircraft safely from A to B is a complex business involving a huge degree of collaboration between a range of industry partners, not only the pilot. One of the most vital cogs in these operations is the air traffic controller, a job that is perhaps not the most apparent to passengers, but instrumental in the running of every flight taking place throughout the world. To find out more about air traffic management’s role in aviation, how controllers become qualified and how they contribute to greater efficiency, we sat down with Ian Jopson of the British ANSP, NATS.

Q: Air traffic management is clearly an important job in the smooth running of every flight, but it also comes with a high degree of responsibility. How are trainee controllers prepared for the rigors of air traffic management?

Ian: As you say, being an air traffic controller is a hugely responsible job and safety is always our top priority. At any one time a controller can be responsible for more than a dozen aircraft with thousands of people on board so as you’d expect, the training is extensive and strenuous. NATS ATC

We receive around 3,000 applications for ever new intake, a number that we then whittle down to around 20 suitable candidates who will begin training at our specialist college in Fareham, Hampshire. There they learn the basic building blocks of air traffic management before being posted to an air traffic control unit somewhere in the country to continue their training.

Altogether it will take around 3 years to take someone from the street to being a fully valid controller, but even then they will be annually assessed throughout their career to make sure they’re maintaining the standards we need. 


Q: Of course, safety is the foremost consideration of all ANSPs, but they can also play an important role in improving the efficiency of a flight and cutting down on fuel burn. What methods do ANSPs use to cut down on emissions?

Ian: Air traffic management influences every  phase of flight, from taxi and take-off through to climb, cruise, descent and landing. And through our controller behaviours and procedures that influence can be either positive or negative. In 2006 NATS became on the first ANSP in the world to set a target to cut aircraft emissions and since then we’ve made hundreds of procedural changes to help save fuel and emissions. We’ve pioneered techniques like Continuous Descent Operations that help keep aircraft higher for longer, while also introducing new technologies like our 3Di metric that measures the efficiency of every flight in UK airspace. All these changes add up and last year we enabled 189,000 tonnes in fuel savings for our airline customers.


Q: Those are all great examples of how ANSPs like NATS are utilising state of the art techniques to cut down on an aircraft’s fuel burn and CO2 emissions, but much of the potential efficiency gains come down to the particular air traffic controller in charge of any given flight. Can you tell us about the system NATS have put in place that helps controllers develop their skills on the job and improve the efficiency of their flights?

Ian: In November 2014 we introduced FLOSYS, a real time tool designed to help us better understand the environmental and fuel performance of the aircraft we provide a service to.

This means that our controllers are now able to see the 3Di efficiency score for every flight, shortly after controlling it and going back up to 12 months, to see which performed particularly well, which didn’t and to start asking the question why.

It is our hope that by giving our controllers and the wider business access to this kind of immediate and very granular data, we can better understand why some flights achieve a very high level of environmental and fuel efficiency and why others don’t. Armed with that kind of data driven intelligence we can then start of the process for identifying areas where we can save our airline customers fuel, time and CO2, whether that’s through more direct routes, smoother climbs and descents or changes to airspace structures.

We have a target to save an average of 10% of CO2 from the average flight by 2020, so initiatives like FLOSYS are absolutely vital to our progress.