The UK’s busiest airports are to introduce technology designed to cut flight delays after a trial led to a sharp increase in the number of aircraft landing on time.
More aircraft will be able to land in strong headwinds – the biggest single cause of late arrivals – after a successful test of the system at Heathrow.
An analysis showed that delays caused by wind were cut by 60% at the airport in the first 12 months that the technology was in operation.
The “time-based separation” system will be introduced at Gatwick and Manchester, the second and third busiest airports in Britain. They collectively handled more than 60 million passengers last year.
The EU has authorised the use of the technology by 2024 as part of the “single European skies” initiative that is designed to open up airspace across the continent.
Other airports expected to introduce the system include Dublin, Frankfurt, Paris-Orly, Madrid, Amsterdam and Rome-Fiumicino.
Nats, formerly National Air Traffic Services, which pioneered the technology in a project with Lockheed Martin, said figures showed that the system at Heathrow had been a huge success with delays over the year caused by wind cut from 3,000 to 1,200 hours, The Times reported.
At present aircraft are separated by distance on the approach to airports, with bigger gaps between larger aircraft because of the scale of the turbulence left in their wake. In strong winds, the distances between aircraft take longer to cover.
A five-year study by Nats and Lockheed Martin found that the “wake vortex” dissipated more quickly in headwinds, allowing aircraft to be flown closer together.
New radar technology employed by Nats allows controllers to separate aircraft based on time rather than distance to ensure that they more closely match the landing rate seen in light headwinds. In effect, this means that the five nautical mile distance between heavy and medium aircraft under the old system can be cut by about one mile.
Andy Shand, general manager for customer affairs, said: “During strong headwinds, aircraft fly more slowly over the ground which has traditionally resulted in extra time between arrivals and consequently delays to arriving flights. However, [this] has allowed us to maintain the landing rate in headwinds by safely reducing the distance between arrivals.”
On average, it has allowed air traffic controllers to land 2.9 additional aircraft an hour on strong wind days.