Departure Planning Information Project helping modernise UK airspace

You might reasonably think, with today’s always on communication technologies, that within the time-critical operating environment of the modern airport, someone must know, precisely, when an incoming passenger aircraft will have taken off, and when it will arrive.

Surprising, for many busy airports in the UK, such precision isn’t possible. Predictions can be inaccurate to the tune of many minutes due to the dynamic nature of air traffic operations and the weather. The result being knock-on uncertainties for operating efficiency and managing for a fast turnaround.

So, if road congestion gets your goat, imagine the headaches caused by having to plan around congestion in the skies with a background of such uncertainty.

Invisible infrastructure

As NATS described in a recent blog post Europe 24 – an air traffic data visualisation – “airspace might be the invisible infrastructure, but it is every bit as important as the road, rail and utility networks we all rely on everyday”.

To illustrate the complexity of the choreography going on over our heads, NATS produced the data visualisation below showing a typical summer’s day of air traffic from last year.

It’s an amalgamation of two data sources – UK radar data from 21 June and European flight plan information from 28 July – and it clearly highlights the structure of airspace across the continent.


This data visualization of Air Traffic in Europe was created from real flight data. It shows the air traffic which flies on a typical summer day and highlights the intensity of the operation in Europe – an operation which runs 24x7x365.

Some statistics from NATS accompanying this video:

  • The video is 1440 times faster than real time;

  • On a typical July day there are around 30,000 flights across European airspace;

  • Approximately a quarter fly within UK controlled airspace;

  • The total distance flown by these aircraft is 25 million nautical miles;

  • That’s 998 times around the Earth;

  • Or 104 trips to the Moon;

  • On 21 June, 5,675 aircraft departed or arrived from UK airports, of which… 2,295
    departed from or arrived at Gatwick (894) or Heathrow (1,401), 1,532 were overflights.

Managing through the uncertainty

Phil Ellis – who has a background in integration projects in construction, software and transport (including working for the BBC on transmission of the Olympics Opening ceremony) – has been managing a way through such uncertainties for Transport systems Catapult’s Real Time Departure Planning Information Project (DPI).

For this, our first aviation project, we’re working with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and air traffic service provider NATS, towards implementation of the air traffic industry’s Future Airspace Strategy.

This strategy envisions a modernised UK airspace, that will offer (as stated by CAA), “safe, efficient airspace, that has the capacity to meet reasonable demand, balances the needs of all users and mitigates the impact of aviation on the environment”.

The Future Airspace Strategy considers the development of the UK’s airspace system from 2011 to 2030, setting the direction for how the planning, management and regulation of UK airspace should develop in order to maintain and improve safety while addressing the many other requirements on the airspace system.

CAA intends to update the control of UK airspace to deal with a long list of issues, including: current ‘hotspots’ of congestion; enabling and facilitating continuous improvements in safety; developing a sustainable framework to guide the aviation industry; improving efficiency; implementing ‘Single European Sky’ proposals to increase the overall safety, capacity and efficiency of the international Air Traffic Management (ATM) system; and maintain access to airspace for military aircraft.

The Future Airspace Strategy is described in basic terms in CAA’s video below.


TSC seen as an honest broker

Transport Systems Catapult’s involvement arose as a result of the FAS Deployment Steering Group – a governance group made up of representatives from across the air traffic industry – approaching us to provide a Departure Planning Information solution.

DPI functionality refers to an airport’s ability to share real time data about when an aircraft plans to push back and the precise time it is likely to take-off.

We were identified as having the potential to be a facilitator that would also help support the project.

The Departure Planning Information project will connect UK airports to the European air traffic network by electronically sharing real-time Departure Planning Information with the European Network Manager at EUROCONTROL (in Brussels) and other key stakeholders. The result should be reduced uncertainty and improving journey reliability.

Planned to be completed this year, the project aims to connect a number of UK airports into the European Network Manager to share real time Departure Planning Information.

Scoping workshop

On 28 January Phil organised Transport Systems Catapult’s scoping workshop that, with the involvement of a number of regional airports and suppliers, developed and agreed the scope of the project and the ‘Use Case Requirements’. This was used to form a ‘Business Requirements Specification’.

According to Phil, “We had very positive feedback, as TSC, being a new organisation, can enable diverse commercial groups to work together, to be an honest broker. The industry has tended to be quite ‘siloed’ – airports are commercial entities that need to stand on their own feet and airlines too have their agendas. As such TSC is seen as helpful collaborator – an honest broker with no historical axe to grind, which should help accelerate integration with EUROCONTROL.”

EUROCONTROL is an organisation that supports European countries for achieving safe, efficient and environmentally friendly air traffic operations. It is working to deliver a ‘Single European Sky’ that, it says, will help to meet the safety, capacity and performance challenges of European aviation in the 21st century.

First mover advantage

As part of the modernisation strategy, Electronic Flight Progress Strips (EFPS) data is being introduced across UK airspace. Strips are the information air traffic controllers use to keep track of the aircraft under their guidance.

For a long time these were, literally, paper strips held in blocks passed manually from controller to controller in air traffic control rooms. The electronic version offers more efficiency, reduced workload through information sharing and streamlined operations to air traffic control.

“The project will deliver two types of solution”, said Phil. “A simplified more cost-effective version suited to smaller hubs to allow them to share data with EUROCONTROL. For airports equipped with the more advanced Electronic Flight Progress Strips (EFPS) tower systems (Manchester, Stanstead, London City, Edinburgh, Luton, Glasgow and Aberdeen) we will offer a software upgrade”.

“Heathrow and Gatwick already have the capability to share DPI messages with the European Network Manager.”

“As a result, Transport Systems Catapult will help enable up to 87% of UK flights to have their DPI data shared.”

“These broader solutions puts the UK in a position to claim a ‘first mover’ advantage to the market.”

Portfolio business

“We’re also looking at how to deliver a new taxi time sampling tool at non-EFPS airports”, said Phil.

“Our end goal is for Transport Systems Catapult to move to having a portfolio of aviation businesses.”

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