European air navigation service providers and Eurocontrol Network Manager are progressively allowing airspace users to plan routes independent of the fixed-route network and based on current aircraft equipment. The European Free-route Airspace is expected to be available at and above 31,000 feet by 2022.

Within free route airspace, flights remain under air traffic control, but irrespective of previous structured routes pilots can plan a route based on the optimum flightpath, adapting especially to the wind conditions at cruising level.

To help achieve the environmental targets set by the Single European Sky legislation, and to enable airlines to operate more efficient and flexible routes, Eurocontrol Network Manager initiated the development and implementation of Free Route Airspace in 2008 through a partnership approach involving various,, organisations and bodies, both civil and military.

The German air navigation service provider, DFS, has taken an important step towards this system. In their project titled Free Route Airspace Maastricht and Karlsruhe (FRAMaK), co-funded by the SESAR Joint Undertaking and in partnership with Eurocontrol Network Manager and Lufthansa, an average route length reduction of 3.7 nautical miles (corresponding to 56.4 kilograms less fuel and 178.1 kilograms less CO2) was achieved per flight. The total potential benefit was estimated at an annual reduction of route length of 1.5 million nautical miles corresponding to 30,000 tonnes of CO2.

Full implementation has already taken place in Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland and Hungary, with partial implementation during the night in a large number of European states. A significant implementation will continue in 2015 with all the Scandinavian and Baltic States implementing full free-route airspace.

A very similar concept is ‘user-preferred routing’, which Qantas has deployed in tandem with Air Services Australia, bringing annual saving of up to 360 tonnes of CO2 for the airline on its domestic flights.