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The busiest airspace in the world is entering the 21st century.
On April 4, air traffic control at London’s Heathrow (LHR) and Gatwick (LGW) airports will transition away from tracking incoming and outbound flights with paper strips, implementing an electronic tracking system called EXCDS in their stead.
“[Our] air traffic controllers… currently use paper strips to record all the information that enables them to keep aircraft safely separated,” said National Air Traffic Services (NATS), the organization responsible for all air traffic control within the United Kingdom, “including where an aircraft is heading to, the speed they’re traveling, and the instructions they’ve been given, for example what flight level to fly at.”
“Months of planning have gone into making this whole process safe and predictable,” said Pete Dawson, the general manager for NATS London Terminal Control, who is responsible for all air traffic in greater London area. “We are again working very closely with our airport and airline customers to put in place measures to minimize any disruption to passengers.”
NATS has successfully implemented the digital technology in two of its five UK regions, but the upcoming London Terminal Control transition is easily its most challenging endeavor. Swanwick-based London Terminal Control, which covers the 200,000 square miles of airspace encompassing all of London and the southeast region of the UK, handles more than 1.8 million flights a year. And in addition to making sure the hardware implementation goes without a hitch, the scheduling logistics for personnel training requires a delicate balancing act as well, as the busy vacation season is just about to begin.
In order to make the switch as smoothly as possible, the Telegraph reports that airlines have agreed to reduce airspace capacity to 80% for the first 10 days beginning April 3, then to 90% for the next 10, before returning to normal. NATS anticipates potential flight delays of up to 20 minutes during this transition period as a result.
“According to the analytics we have run, for those flights that are delayed, and many flights will not be, it is around 20 minutes at those peak times,” explained Jamie Hutchison, director at NATS Swanwick. “For the following 10 days that [delay time] halves to around 10 minutes, and after 20 days we return to full capacity. This is really quite a significant change for the controllers – and change is always difficult – but broadly the feedback has been very positive because they see the benefits.”
Although EXCDS provides automated flight data management information using touch-sensitive display screens, air traffic controllers are not in danger of becoming defunct any time soon. While EXCDS automates some processes and reduces the need for manual coordination, the system still relies on human oversight to manually input much of the documentation air traffic controllers currently handwrite, regarding the instructions they’ve given to an aircraft.
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