Line in the Air?

As FTN went to print last month, the UK Civil Aviation Authority published its decision to grant Farnborough Airport new controlled airspace, some six years after the possibility of controlled airspace for Farnborough had first been formally mooted. The airspace proposal put forward by airport operators TAG Farnborough Airport was modified by the CAA, in order it said to afford easier access to non-commercial, light aircraft traffic, and TAG were given one week to accept or reject the modified version.

On 17 July, TAG Farnborough accepted the modified version of its Airspace Change Proposal (ACP), which included altering two control zones to the south and southwest of the airport from Class D to Class E airspace.

The new airspace is due to come into effect next year. Understandably, TAG Farnborough Airport were pleased with the outcome, commenting: “TAG Farnborough Airport welcomes the decision by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to approve its Airspace Change Proposal. We will carefully study the CAA’s decision and recommendations as we plan for the future.

The purpose of TAG Farnborough Airport’s Airspace Change Proposal ACP is to create a new operating environment with elements of controlled airspace, which would offer all airspace users predictability and consistency of operation. Overall, this could further reduce noise and CO2 emissions, improving the environment in and around the airport. It is also set to improve efficiency and enhance safety.”

However, if it was hoped that modifying TAG’s proposal would placate the General Aviation community, it is likely that those hopes have been swiftly dashed. Feelings ran high on aviation forums and in the clubrooms of those airfields most likely to be affected by the new airspace. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA UK) also weighed-in on the argument, with AOPA UK CEO Martin Robinson stating that UK airspace needs a complete rethink. “…our position is that once again we can see that the UK airspace structure is not fit for current use and needs a complete overhaul. Something that AOPA keeps lobbying for,” said Robinson.

However, undoubtedly the strongest official response came from the British Gliding Association (BGA). The BGA has been by far the most outspoken objector to the new airspace, and their press release slammed the decision, stating that it: “…marks a new and more fundamental low point in the CAA’s attempts to be a responsible guardian and regulator of UK airspace. The latest in a series of airspace decisions that test credulity and defy reason, this decision has all the hallmarks of being written as an attempt to show that process has been followed, but with little if any concern for making the correct or most appropriate decision.

“The emphasis on process is not matched by depth of analysis, logical rigour or concern for the legitimate needs and safety of all airspace users. The decision redirects huge volumes of airspace from the safe enjoyment of a great many pilots to serve the self-interests of one party alone based on a case that was presented only on the need to avoid any delays in inbound/outbound movements at Farnborough airfield. There was no safety issue that needed to be addressed – but in arriving at its decision, the CAA now runs the risk of creating a major one.”

The BGA statement added: “The inadequacy, however, of CAA analysis and decision making, coupled with a flagrant disregard for carefully made GA inputs exhibited in CAP 1678 indicate a very worrying future airspace scenario for GA.”

As reported in the last issue of FTN, the powerful All Party Parliamentary Group on General Aviation (APPG) has also weighed in, promising a parliamentary investigation into how airspace decisions are made in the UK.

On a more technical level, aviation experts have questioned the usefulness of the ‘Class E’ airspace segments inserted into the airspace proposal. The new Class E+TMZ zone to the southwest of Farnborough is active from 4,500ft to 5,500ft, while the Class E+TMZ zone due south of the airport is active from 5,500ft to 6,500ft. The majority of transiting powered GA VFR traffic will probably remain below this airspace, but gliders won’t necessarily have this luxury, as maximising altitude is a vital component on cross-country flights. Conforming to VFR weather minima in this airspace will include a minimum vertical separation of 1,000ft from cloud and an in-flight visibility of 5km. This means that a glider wishing to transit Farnborough’s new Class E airspace will have to do so on a day when the cloud base is a minimum of 5,500ft for the southwest zone, or 6,500ft for the southern zone, with no other lower cloud that could infringe the 5km horizontal minima – a rare occurrence in the UK.

Other flights that enter these Class E airspace segments under VFR, who subsequently discover that the cloud and/or visibility drops below VFR minima, will need to obtain IFR clearance from Farnborough to continue. An unexpected change from VFR to IFR (Instrument Flight Rules), will then add to the controller’s workload as they will be required to achieve enhanced separation between other IFR traffic, which will put additional pressure on Farnborough’s air traffic system. The critical component therefore is whether TAG Farnborough will have the resources (and inclination) to put in place a sufficiently robust Air Traffic System to cater for such eventualities.

These safety considerations aside, CAA would appear to have been juggling a politically ‘hot potato’, stuck between an airspace sponsor that is rumoured to be well-connected politically, and a GA industry unwilling to back-down from their view that the Farnborough proposal marked a ‘line in the sand’ for how airspace decisions are made in the UK.

It is becoming clear that the CAA decision is unlikely to mark the end of the argument over Farnborough’s airspace, and the scene is being set for a battle over this airspace approval which could well have ramifications for other Airspace Change Proposals (ACP) still in the pipeline. Against a backdrop of the further ACPs being considered by the CAA, including in particular the proposal for new controlled airspace around Oxford Airport and RAF Brize Norton, the General Aviation community appears to be ready to make a stand.

FTN understands that various GA organisations are busy garnering support for what could likely be one the most significant challenges in modern times to the CAA’s rulemaking powers.

In many ways the Farnborough saga highlights many of the most controversial aspects of how controlled airspace decisions are made in the UK, including:

• Who ‘owns’ airspace, is it a private or national asset?
• Should the considerations of a minority (commercial air transport) outweigh the considerations of the majority (General Aviation)?
• Is the airspace change process fit for purpose?
• If the CAA can award (and even create) controlled airspace, why can’t they remove it?
• To what extent is General Aviation traffic endangered by the ‘choke points’ created between areas of controlled airspace?

There now seems to be a very strong probability that the process by which the Farnborough airspace has been awarded will be opened up to detailed and forensic examination – not least by the APPG enquiry. Such a public inspection of matters which have traditionally remained hidden behind a blanket of ‘commercial confidentiality’ is unlikely to be a pain-free process for any of the parties involved.

Author: Rob Hall

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