The Commercialisation of Lower Airspace

Commercial drone companies are being charged to enter and operate within airport control zones at London Heliport and London Oxford Airport, marking what is believed to be the first instances of airports charging for airspace access.

Does this represent the thin end of the wedge in terms of the commercialisation of lower airspace?

The Association of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems UK (ARPAS UK) contacted FTN to advise that commercial drone operators are now required to pay a £160 fee each time they wish to fly one of their drones inside of London Oxford Airport (LOA) airspace, and £180 for entry into London Heliport’s airspace.

FTN spoke with Mike Sparrow, LOA’s airport manager, for confirmation. According to Mr Sparrow, LOA’s fees have been imposed in order to cover the extra operational costs borne by the airport in facilitating the drone activity.

Under new drone law, the airport now has a Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ) in addition to its ATZ.

This drone specific FRZ extends in a 1km wide corridor 5km out from the airport along its runway axis, up to 2,000ft. Prior permission must be granted before drones may access this airspace.

According to Mike Sparrow, there are a number of commercial drone operators requesting access to the FRZ and the airport is spending a significant amount of time coordinating these activities alongside its other operations.

Before allowing access to a drone operator, Mike Sparrow confirms that the airport has to put safeguarding measures in place, including issuing NOTAMs, in order to deconflict the activity from its other traffic, including low level helicopter operations.

LOA’s FRZ also takes in much of the grounds of nearby Blenheim Palace and while public drone use is forbidden within the park, LOA apparently get a lot of applications from commercial drone companies wishing to operate there.

While LOA appears to have a strong argument to justify its drone access charges, the counter argument is that they don’t own the airspace that they have been given free-of-charge by the CAA and so have no right to charge for access to it. Additionally, according ARPAS UK, LOA is gold-plating the regulations by charging drone operators for the issue of NOTAMs, when they aren’t required, according to current CAA legislation.

FTN asked the Civil Aviation Authority for their opinion about these charges, but at the time of writing they were unwilling to make a statement.

They did confirm, however, that they were “aware of user concerns” and that “restricted areas are absolutely not shut to drone users.” But with no one willing to challenge the charges imposed by LOA and London Heliport, the implication for other airspace users remains significant.

Rupert Dent, Regulation Director of ARPAS UK commented: “It is odd that Oxford Airport and the London Heliport both appear to be charging some airspace users to access their FRZ but not others. They have developed a reputation for being anti UAS, which seems to me to be rather short sighted.

Other airports, Biggin Hill amongst them, have understood the long-term benefits of integrating UAS operations now and even use them for hangar roof inspections.”

While exact numbers are unknown, it is estimated that there are around 22,000 general aviation (GA) aircraft active in the UK, representing more than 90% of the airborne fleet, with airlines and the military making up the remainder.

Commercial drone numbers are currently way below this figure but are growing rapidly and Government has been attempting to forecast what the pace of growth will be over the next couple of decades.

The answer appears to be that they haven’t a clue, at the moment, but expect it to be significant (a Government report published in January 2019 failed to make any firm predications, forecasting anywhere between a two to tenfold increase over the next decade).

Out of the 22,000 GA aircraft in the UK, a large proportion are flown for recreational and sport purposes, under visual flight rules in uncontrolled airspace.

The majority are equipped with VHF radios, meaning that they can access Class E airspace (the least restrictive form of controlled airspace) without prior clearance, as long as they comply with any ATC instructions once in the zone.

For higher categories of airspace, prior clearance must be obtained first and is not guaranteed, especially when ATC units are being crewed with the minimum number of staff required to provide a control service to their customers, the airlines.

The relationship between air navigation service provider (ANSP) and commercial air traffic (CAT) in the UK is frequently closer than that of vendor and customer, as the principal customer (the UK airline industry) is a 42% stakeholder of the UK’s largest ANSP, NATS.

While it makes commercial sense (for both parties) to use the minimum number of controllers to provide a traffic service within a block of controlled airspace, a consequence can be that non-customers (GA aircraft transiting through the airspace) can end up being denied access.

If, as is sometimes the case, CAT is using the airspace predominately during the hours when GA aircraft are on the ground, then it makes even less commercial sense to fully crew an ATS unit at times when the only traffic using it isn’t paying for it.

As a consequence, a number of GA airports in the UK are currently operating what appears to be a skeleton crew in their towers, leading to airport closures at certain times of the day or even for days at a time. Away from airports, some military and civilian ATS units are also now frequently denying a lower airspace radar service (LARS) to transiting GA traffic due to staffing issues.

GA traffic can of course avoid Class D airspace – the lowest category that requires clearance – but this is becoming a harder challenge due to the narrowing of corridors of uncontrolled airspace sandwiched between new control zones.

Further, if the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) chooses to align with ICAO international airspace standards, as it is currently proposing to do, then a new swathe of controlled airspace will need to be introduced in the UK over the next few years. EASA wants Europe to align with an ICAO standard which states that air traffic control can only be provided inside of controlled airspace.

This means that some of the current air traffic control outside of controlled airspace (ATSOCAS) provision will no longer be permitted. According to the Airport Operators Association (UK) there are 29 airports in the UK currently providing ATS for CAT in uncontrolled airspace.

Located in Class G airspace, these airports would need to be granted Class E zones as a minimum in order to be permitted to continue to offer ATC to their customers. LOA is one such airport.

The Civil Aviation Authority regulates UK airspace but as reported in previous editions of FTN it is limited in its powers (it cannot currently revoke controlled airspace once granted, for example) and the whole airspace regulatory process is arguably the hottest topic in town for the Authority, which has been tasked with changing the current segregated system into an integrated one. Complaints from the GA community about denied access to controlled airspace has led the CAA to launch a ‘denied access’ reporting scheme, where GA pilots can report such instances.

In light of increasing incidents of commercial drones being denied access to controlled airspace, the CAA have just launched a denied access reporting service for drone operators, available at

http://skywise.caa.co.uk/small-unmanned-aircraft-airspace-access-report-form/

If airports really are struggling to cover the cost of facilitating airspace access to GA pilots and commercial drone operators at current traffic levels, then where will they be in a few years’ time when commercial drone use, including autonomous air taxis and delivery drones, really takes off?

Furthermore, if the CAA is not prepared to intervene, what is there to prevent any airport deciding to charge for access to its airspace (and deny access to those who will not pay), despite the fact that the airports themselves pay no fees to be granted that airspace.

Will a credit card, rather than a radio, soon become the most important piece of equipment required to get permission to enter an airfield’s airspace?

Lower airspace in the UK is already the greatest source of conflict between General Aviation, airport operators and the CAA. If airspace does become ‘pay to access’, that conflict can only grow deeper and more entrenched.

Author: Rob Hall

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