Following the recommendation made by the independent Airports Commission in the UK, London Heathrow will be the first airport in the world to introduce a new system of managing arriving flights using the amount of time between flights, rather than distance.
Introduced by air traffic control operators NATS, the new system will help reduce delays and cancellations caused as a result of strong head winds by landing arriving flights closer together. The new procedures are expected to halve delays for arriving flights at Heathrow affected by high winds, cutting disruption for passengers by more than 1,300 hours each year. The new procedures will be introduced from spring 2015.
Heathrow is the world’s busiest two-runway airport and has been operating at 98% of its runway capacity for a decade. In normal conditions a flight takes off or lands every 45 seconds. During strong headwind conditions, aircraft fly more slowly over the ground resulting in extra time between each arrival. Having to maintain a set separation distance in those conditions reduces the landing rate and causes delays. Because Heathrow’s runways are full there are no spare slots into which to schedule delayed flights. This inevitably means that flights operate into the night or are cancelled.
Traditionally, flights have been separated by set distances dependent on the type of aircraft and the size of the spiralling turbulence – or wake vortex – they create as they fly. NATS has studied over 100,000 flights using state-of-the-art equipment to accurately measure the behaviour of aircraft wake vortices in strong headwinds. The results show that they dissipate more quickly in windy conditions, therefore allowing aircraft to be closer together on final approach while maintaining safety as the main priority.
Derek Provan, Heathrow Director of Airside Operations, said: “We are pleased that NATS have accelerated the roll-out of this new system at Heathrow. It will help us keep the flights landing safely and on time during strong headwinds – ultimately benefitting passengers and local communities.”