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banner Thursday, 26 July, 2001, 10:40 GMT 11:40 UK
The future of flying
More and more of us want to fly but we're running out of space, in the air and on the ground. What air travel is like in future depends on finding extra capacity, writes the BBC's transport correspondent Simon Montague.

Britain's already stretched air traffic controllers will handle more than two million flights this year. In 10 years' time, their workload is expected to be three million.

Beyond that, the number of people flying is forecast to double compared with today.

Whether it is a holiday in the sun, a dream trip to a far flung continent, or another meeting with overseas colleagues in Global Business Corp, our desire to fly seems insatiable.

Yet that desire has not been matched by increases in aviation capacity, which means only one thing: increasing delays.

Click here to e-mail your questions about air rage, pilots' pay, increasing congestion - or any other air travel issues to Simon Montague - who will answer a selection of them on Friday.

Planning for the future

Passengers passing through UK airports
1995: 129 million
1998: 160 million
2000: 180 million
So we are entering a crucial period for air travel in the UK. Events in the near future will determine how well the country copes over the next three decades.

  • Next week the government is due to complete another controversial part-privatisation, selling 46% of National Air Traffic Services (NATS) to The Airline Group, a consortium of seven airlines including British Airways.

  • This autumn, ministers are expected to give the go ahead for a fifth terminal at Heathrow.

    Forecast growth in passengers
    2005: 228 million
    2010: 276 million
    2015: 333 million
    2020: 400 million

  • And early next year, a series of studies will look at the future capacity of air transport across the UK regions. The most controversial will be a study of south east England, with options for another runway.

    The government says these consultation documents will lead to a new White Paper on air transport towards the end of 2002, setting out policy for the next 30 years.

    NATS: Increased capacity

    The partially privatised NATS haspromised it will invest more in air traffic control systems. On 27 January next year, it's due to open the long delayed, new control centre for England and Wales, at Swanwick in Hampshire.

    It is also building a new Scottish control centre at Prestwick. Together these two centres should increase capacity in the air, and allow more planes to fly in the same space.

    Capacity at airports is a far bigger problem. The proposed Heathrow Terminal 5 has been the subject of Britain's longest ever planning inquiry.

    Runway dilemmas

    NATS pledges
    Trainee controller intake to rise from 120 to 180 per year
    Improving flightpaths for Luton and Stansted by resectorisation
    Reduce the vertical separation of aircraft above 29,000 feet from 2,000 to 1,000 feet to increase capacity and reduce delays
    The government's widely expected to give the go ahead, and police forces are already preparing to deal with environmental protests.

    The next pressure will be for another runway, somewhere in the south east.

    BAA, the company that owns Heathrow, has ruled out a third runway there. Three entire villages comprising several thousand homes would have to be demolished.

    The airlines beg to differ. The British Air Transport Association, of which Heathrow's biggest airline British Airways is the leading member, has told the government that Heathrow should be expanded to "three, or preferably four, runways".

    In addition, "Gatwick and then Stansted should each get a second runway", plus another runway at Luton as well.

    For ministers, that is highly uncomfortable reading. The extent to which they will make runway decisions in next year's White Paper is far from clear.

    Smaller planes, more flights

    Waiting around: the shape of things to come?
    Some believe the eventual choice is most likely to be a second runway at Stansted, where the airport layout is most practical and where opposition could be least.

    The reality is that the demand to fly is outstripping the capacity to do so, and that looks set to continue. Low cost airlines like easyJet, Ryanair and Go are buying new aircraft and adding new flights faster than controllers can be found to handle them.

    Other airlines like British Airways are downsizing, to fly smaller planes on more frequent schedules.

    Air traffic controllers complain that they're already overstretched, and in danger of becoming more so.

    But they say they won't compromise on safety, and that's why there are departure delays; it's safer to keep passengers and planes waiting on the ground, rather than in the air.

    The one consolation if you are delayed yet again is that, contrary to popular belief, more congestion in the air does not equal more danger.

    According to the Civil Aviation Authority's annual report on "airproxes" or near misses, published last week, serious incidents are down to an all time low. Flying may be frustrating at times, but it remains very safe.

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