Pathway to the future
Edinburgh Airport has just begun a trial into a new flight path for departing aircraft, allowing planes to take off at one-minute intervals in a bid to increase capacity. The route has been touted as promoting sustainable growth, without the need for costly infrastructure investments. Abi Millar explores what advantages airports might gain from improving local flight paths.
The 25th June 2015 was a pivotal day for Edinburgh Airport. It marked the beginning of a pioneering new trial, due to run until November, which will markedly increase airspace capacity over Central Scotland.
The airport is testing a new Standard Instrument Departure (SID) route, which will allow aircraft of a certain size to depart at one-minute intervals. As passenger numbers continue to expand, it will allow the airport to maintain growth without the need for disruptive infrastructure investments.
Prior to this trial, the aircraft were confined to a suboptimal network. Since the 1970s, when the route was designed, planes' and passengers' needs have changed significantly and the route profile has come to seem far less efficient. With the new SID, modern planes will be able to soar far higher than they did before, flying over land at approximately 13,000 ft.
"Over the last three years, since Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP)'s acquisition, we have seen significant growth at Edinburgh Airport," says David Wilson, chief operating officer at Edinburgh Airport, who is heading up the project. "In 2014, I carried out a capacity study which highlighted that at peak times the current airspace capacity was inadequate.
"The primary reason for that was that our existing published SIDs only enable two-minute departure separation on the runway. What we really needed was to put in place a different SID to allow for one-minute departure separation, meeting the growth in demand without seeing deterioration on the service."
Incorporating an extra route is undoubtedly great news for the airport itself. Edinburgh is Scotland's busiest airport - and the sixth largest in the UK - with a record 10.2 million passengers travelling through its terminal in 2014. The additional SID has been designed to cut congestion, improve punctuality, and create a more efficient service.
On the other hand, developing an extra route is not a decision to be taken lightly. For communities on the ground, any new airspace may lead to disruption. As a result, the aircraft will pass over very few settlements, and will be routed over the river for the majority of their flight path around Edinburgh.
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After taking off in a south westerly direction, they will turn right towards the Firth of Forth before climbing quickly above the river and flying back over land near Musselburgh. This route has been designed in line with guidance from the Civil Aviation Authority, and is supported by air traffic control providers NATS.
"We engaged NATS and their procedure design group to design a SID that avoided densely populated areas where possible," says Wilson. "We wanted it to fly over farmland and water features where practicable as well, in order to ensure that we did this in such a sustainable way and that it had as limited an impact on the local communities as possible."
Before getting started, the airport contacted the communities who may be affected and their stakeholder representatives. This meant talking to MPs, MEPs, MSPs and local councillors, briefing them on what the SID is about and what it hopes to achieve.
This engagement will continue for the duration of the trial, in a bid to find out the broader impact of the SID. Noise monitors will be placed along the flight path, enabling the team to collect flight data and determining any undesirable spikes in noise.
"Reassuring the community who live underneath the flight path is very important," explains Wilson. "Despite us using our best endeavours to avoid densely populated areas, it is likely that some people will be affected who haven't been in the past. Our biggest challenge lies in minimising disruption for these people while at the same time ensuring the aircraft can fly the actual route that's been proposed and designed."
If a new SID was to be introduced permanently - as opposed to on a pilot basis - it would be necessary to undergo further stakeholder consultation, along with a formal statutory change process. The airport would need to comply with the CAA publication CAP 725 (a formal Airspace Change Process), and would continue the trial for slightly longer until it forms one of Edinburgh's official departure routes.
In the meantime, it aims to conduct the trial as proactively and transparently as possible - a prerequisite in a sensitive project of this kind.
"We have created a SID microsite, which includes the map of the actual route the aircraft will fly," says Wilson. "If you hover above the data points on the route, it will give you an indicative noise, and an indicative height the aircraft will be flying at, so a person who's looking at that site will see what likely impact it will have when the aircraft is flying overhead."
An example to others
Should the trial prove successful, it may provide a template to other Scottish airports, enabling them to improve their own air traffic management procedures. Most airports in Scotland are anticipating further growth, meaning they will be watching closely to see how Edinburgh is upgrading its airspace.
"There's a great desire for air travel from the general public and therefore for us to provide the passenger with the choice of destinations that they desire we have to make sure we grow our airport in a sustainable and pragmatic way," says Wilson. "It's very important that we see new airlines coming to Edinburgh Airport, but that these don't have a detrimental impact on the local population and the airline doesn't see a deterioration in punctuality."
At present, there are several hundred airspace change programmes underway in Europe, ranging from the very minor to the major. Edinburgh Airport provides a prime example of how this can be achieved, taking operations into the 21st century without the need for a more drastic investment.
"We want to use the current runway and infrastructure to the best of its abilities," says Wilson. "We know that creating a new runway is a highly sensitive ethical issue, and therefore by getting the best out of our existing runway, this will negate the need for the building of a second runway for a considerable period of time."