Infringements come under the spotlight

Infringements come under the spotlightEven as the battle-lines are drawn over the proposed expansion of controlled airspace in the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and National Air Traffic Services (NATS) are calling for a renewed focus on reducing airspace infringements, the vast majority caused by General Aviation aircraft. With all sections of the aviation community agreeing that airspace infringements must be reduced, the key questions are: why do infringements occur, and what can be done to reduce them?

According to the CAA, the number of airspace infringements in the UK has stayed remarkably steady at around 1000 infringements annually over the last decade or so, despite various awareness campaigns and other steps to bring the number down. However, NATS officials concede that in all likelihood the number of actual infringements has reduced (possibly from a figure as high as 2000 a year). The explanation is that the many ATC units are now required to report any infringement, no matter how minor, and automatic systems such as CAIT (Controlled Airspace Infringement Tool) have also increased the number of infringement reports. The level of infringements remains a concern however, and NATS have identified airspace infringement as a significant safety hazard. There is also recognition on all sides that a catastrophic event – such as mid-air collision resulting from an infringement – could have exceptionally serious consequences well beyond the victims of any such occurrence. Political pressure driven by public opinion (for example requiring all aircraft to carry a transponder and radio, or banning all light aircraft from going anywhere near controlled airspace) could decimate General Aviation activity.

Concern about the infringement problem reaches to the very top of the CAA, and at a recent meeting of aviation professionals called together to discuss the issue and develop an action plan, Andrew Hains, Chief Executive of the CAA, pointed to the CAA’s recent decision to prosecute in the most serious cases of infringement, “It’s a necessary step when the perpetrator doesn’t take the issue seriously enough,” he said. Privately, CAA officials have pointed to at least one case of deliberate infringement where the pilot appears to have regarded the resulting fine as a price worth paying for the ‘convenience’ of operating where he pleased. In such cases, they say, only licence suspension and prosecution can have any effect. Speaking at the same event the CAA’s Director of Airspace Policy, Mark Swan, said “Enough is enough. This isn’t the last chance saloon – we want to give this [the outcome of the seminar’s working groups] a chance first. We’ve got to crack this problem.” He also revealed that follow-up action after infringements has shown an apparently poor level of aeronautical knowledge amongst infringers. The CAA can invite an infringer to undertake an on-line test of relevant aeronautical rule and procedures and out of 187 on-line tests undertaken, 123 pilots (66%) failed the test. He also revealed the aspiration that a lightweight transponder could be developed, possibly operating via a software app, which could sell for as little as $200. The operation of an altitude reporting transponder gives ATC and suitably equipped-aircraft many more options to take avoiding action around an infringing aircraft.

In support of the CAA/NATS project to develop an action plan for reducing infringements, the Future Airspace Strategy VFR Implementation Group (FASVIG) analysed data from 530 infringement reports, collected over a three year period by NATS units. Some of the key points of FASVIG’s analysis are summarised in the ‘key points’ table.

Key points of FASVIG infringement report analysis
  • 97% took place under VFR
  • 85% took place in visibility better than 10 kilometres
  • 76% of infringements were by GA Single Engine Piston aircraft
  • 35% of infringers had more than 1000 hours total time, and 16% less than 100 hours
  • 65% of infringers held a PPL or NPPL
  • 21% of infringers held a CPL or ATPL
  •  6% of infringers were students
  • 15% of infringements involved training with an Instructor
  • 70% of infringements were horizontal, 30% were vertical

Other results of the FASVIG analysis are more unexpected, for example that around 60% of infringers did not belong to any aviation association. This finding appears to support the anecdotal view that many infringers are not receiving the safety messages and advice being published by pilot and aircraft owner associations in an effort to reduce infringements. This finding also underlines the problem many aviation safety campaigns face, namely that those who are receptive to safety information and stay up-to-date with their aeronautical knowledge, are also less likely to be involved in incidents and accidents. The challenge is how to reach those who seem to be relatively isolated from the ‘mainstream’ aviation community.

The FASVIG analysis also noted that the most infringed zones do not offer radar services outside controlled airspace, perhaps tying in with the finding that 50% of infringers were in receipt of a Basic Service and very a few Traffic or Deconfliction Service. Around 50% were not in receipt of an Air Traffic Service.

Possibly the most stark discovery was in regard to the use of GPS. 74% of infringers were not GPS equipped and of the remaining 26%, half were not using the equipment on board. Where GPS equipment was carried, 15% was designed for IFR as opposed to VFR flight. So about 10% of the total infringers were using VFR GPS equipment. FASVIG say that a subjective analysis suggests that even where VFR GPS was being used, in half of those cases it was not being used effectively, taking the likely total to 5%. In other words, 95% of infringers were not properly operating a VFR GPS. Given the growth of VFR GPS systems in the last decade, one possible conclusion is that almost all infringers are found amongst a ‘hardcore’ of pilots who either don’t have VFR GPS, or don’t know how to operate the GPS equipment in the aircraft. In relation to VFR GPS, FASVIG say that one of the most effective ways to reduce infringements would be the widespread use of such devices and that users are properly trained in their use. FASVIG do not think that the CAA can mandate the use of such devices but they do make a number of recommendations.

FASVIG recommendations re. VFR GPS
  1. Promulgate the fact that enforcement action will be less severe for those pilots who have been using such a device effectively.
  2. Consider funding existing software VFR GPS ‘apps’ to be freely available for in-flight use along the lines of the deal which was made during the London Olympics.
  3. Incorporate moving map training into PPL training and encourage its use, even at student level.
  4. Use coordinated and effective communications and marketing to encourage people to use such devices.

Ahead of the development of an infringement action plan, the CAA and NATS are trialling a ‘collaborative airspace trial’ in the Southampton area, specifically around the Southampton control zone and ‘SOLENT’ control area. Between 1st August and 16th October aircraft with radio and transponder are being asked to use the ‘listening squawk’ procedures when within a defined area. Aircraft equipped with radio only are requested to call Solent Radar stating just call sign, position and altitude. Full details of the trial are in Aeronautical Information Circular (AIC) 061/2016.

This area appears to have been chosen as Southampton apparently suffers more infringements than any other area of controlled airspace in the UK. According to NATS statistics on the ‘Fly On Track’ website, in the 12 months to June 2016, Southampton airspace had been subject to almost 100 infringements, of which about 8 were in the ‘High/Medium Severity’ category. However, privately some aviation organisations question the Southampton data and suggest that Southampton ‘infringements’ are being recorded in a far bigger area (possibly up to 50 miles away from Southampton) than just inside Southampton and Solent airspace.

This concern only underlies the suspicion between some sections of the aviation community and some airfield and airspace operators, much of it driven by differences over recently established controlled airspace and current proposals for more – such as at Farnborough. Nevertheless, all parties seem to be agreed on the severity of the problem of airspace infringements and the importance of finding workable solutions – not least if further regulation and restrictions on VFR operations are to be avoided.

Author: FTN

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