Who are NATS? The experts behind air traffic control at Heathrow…


By Heathrow

Published 15th August 2016

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To celebrate Heathrow’s 70th anniversary we’ve caught up with NATS’ Adrian Dolan to find out what it’s like to be an Air Traffic Controller. Who are NATS? We’ve also taken a look at the company responsible for controlling the UK skies.

NATS provides air traffic navigation services to aircraft flying through UK controlled airspace and at numerous UK and international airports – including Heathrow. Each year NATS handle 2.4 million flights and 250 million passengers in UK airspace!

In addition to providing services to 13 UK airports, and managing all upper airspace in the UK, they provide services around the world spanning Europe, the Middle East, Asia and North America.

How do NATS air traffic controllers manage air space?

UK airspace contains a network of corridors, or airways. These are usually ten miles wide and reach up to a height of 24,000 feet from a base of between 5,000 and 7,000 feet. They mainly link busy areas of airspace known as terminal control areas, which are normally above major airports. At a lower level, control zones are established around each airport. The area above 24,500 feet is known as upper airspace.

All of these airways are designated “controlled airspace”. Aircraft fly in them under the supervision of air traffic controllers and pilots are required to file a flight plan for each journey, containing details such as destination, route, timing and height.

The guiding principle of air traffic control is that safety is paramount. Controllers must keep the aircraft they handle safely separated using internationally agreed standards.They achieve this by allocating different heights to aircraft or by arranging minimum horizontal distances between them. These distances vary according to circumstances, but aircraft flying along the airways under radar surveillance, for example, are kept five nautical miles apart horizontally or at least 1,000 feet vertically.

Source: NATS

Time Based Separation (TBS) innovation at Heathrow

The operating procedure, called Time Based Separation (TBS), is a world-first at Heathrow, and came as a result of a partnership between NATS, Lockheed Martin and EUROCONTROL.

TBS has led to an overall 60% reduction in aircraft delays during windy conditions due to air traffic control management, with 25,000 minutes of delay time being saved in the month of November alone.

Under normal conditions NATS air traffic controllers land around 42 aircraft an hour at Heathrow, the world’s busiest dual runway operation, however that falls dramatically in a strong headwind when aircraft fly more slowly over the ground.

TBS allows aircraft operators to counteract the effect of wind on the landing rates by using live data from aircraft to adjust the separation between arrivals based on time rather than distance.

Meet air traffic controllers Steph Kelly, Paul Hooper and Ady Dolan

Ady Dolan and BBC 5 Live’s Stephen Nolan in the Heathrow Airport Air Traffic Control Tower. Source: @StephenNolan

Want to know what it’s really like to be an Air Traffic Controller? We’ve profiled three of the ATC stars here at yourHeathrow:

Find out more about NATS via their award-winning blog, here.

For information on Air Traffic Control careers with NATS please click here.

NOTE: This article was originally published in June 2016.


By Heathrow

Published 15th August 2016