Reducing aviation’s environmental footprint with NATS

NATS was the first ASNP to introduce its own sustainability programme and was recently recognised for its efforts to reduce the environmental impact of aviation. Julian Turner talks to Ian Jopson, head of environmental affairs, about making commercial aviation a net zero emission industry by 2050

Ian Jopson is head of environmental and community affairs at the UK air navigation service provider NATS, where he is responsible for a corporate social responsibility initiative targeting improvements to operational CO2 emissions, noise performance and a low-carbon estate strategy. Previously, he worked for the Civil Aviation Authority. 

Jopson is a member of the ICAO Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection and of the UK Royal Aeronautical Society’s Greener by Design environmental steering group.

Ian Jopson, head of environmental affairs

All photos courtesy of NATS

Julian Turner: What is NATS’ Act Responsibly programme and what are its key objectives?

Ian Jopson: NATS’ campaign began in 2008, when most other air navigation service providers (ANSPs) tended not to consider the environmental impact of their operations and so weren’t setting sustainability targets. At that time, CO2 emissions in our airspace amounted to around 24 million tons a year.

We set a target – the first ANSP COreduction target in the world – that aircraft in our airspace should, by 2020, burn 10% less fuel and emit 10% less COon average compared with our baseline year of 2006. 

We also set a similar reduction target for our estate – buildings, remote sites, control towers, etc. – because we wanted everyone from the CEO down to own the sustainability programme. 

Act Responsibly is about engaging a company of 4,500 people in doing the right thing and we also extended that in order put more impetus into the communities near where we work and live.

 iBeacon technology will provide indoor directions, walking times to gates, lounge access and boarding alerts

Why is NATS taking responsibility for reducing CO2 emissions and not the airlines themselves?

IJ: Airlines and airports strive individually and collectively to reduce their emissions as part of the Sustainable Aviation coalition. 

Airlines buy new fuel and noise-efficient aircraft, while airports invest huge amounts of effort to reduce their carbon footprint and improve the sustainability of their operations. For example, British Airways just retired its last 767, replacing it with a Boeing 787, which is 30-50% more noise efficient and emits significantly less CO2.

However, NATS is committed to driving operational efficiency, because once an aircraft gets into our airspace, how we direct it has a fundamental impact on the amount of fuel it burns, the amount of emissions it produces – every ton of fuel we reduce for the airlines equates to just over three tons of CO2

Practically, that means managing airspace to give departing aircraft smoother climbs up to their most fuel-efficient cruising level. Once they’re there, we direct them to take advantage of tailwinds, or different direct routes to reduce fuel burn.

On arrival, we keep aircraft as high as possible for as long as possible, which again is where they are most fuel efficient. Across the UK network, an average 77% of aircraft are given continuous-descent approaches, reducing fuel burn, emissions and noise.

More direct routes, avoiding stepped climbs and descents – these ATM innovations contribute towards the overall sustainability of the aviation industry. There’s a double bonus for the airlines, of course, because in the EU, and internationally through the International Civil Aviation Authority’s (ICAO) carbon offsetting scheme, reducing fuel burn and CO2 emissions has positive cost implications.

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What new technologies has NATS introduced to reduce airline CO2 emissions and fuel burn?

IJ: Our new iFACTS tool allows a controller to look up to 18 minutes into the future. For example, if two aircraft are on converging headings, in those 18 minutes the controller can predict where those aircraft are going to be, enabling them to not only maintain safe separation, but also not deviate from the most direct, fuel-efficient route.

Our FLOSYS system takes radar data from the control screens and calculates the airspace efficiency of every single flight in our network. Controllers can drill down in 3D to identify inefficiencies such as lateral track extensions, level offs or intervening traffic – and get a granular view of how their controlling techniques are effecting aircraft efficiency compared with yesterday, or even last year.

How is NATS reducing the environmental footprint of its own facilities and infrastructure?

IJ: We have large technology requirements that make significant demands on the national grid. By engaging with departments such as these and going around the estate looking at how we could operate it more efficiently, we managed to reduce our carbon footprint by around 30%.

This past October, we switched to low-carbon green gas – 97% biomethane from a number of sources, anaerobic digestion and landfill gas – certified by the Green Gas Certification Scheme, and from April 2019, 93% of the electricity purchased across our estate will be from renewable sources. 

We even try to install wind power or solar PV on our remote radar and communications sites.

 iBeacon technology will provide indoor directions, walking times to gates, lounge access and boarding alerts

Some activists would argue that efforts to reduce the environmental impact of aviation are window dressing, as well as too little, too late. How do you respond?

IJ: Certainly, for some B2B organisations, environmental credentials may have been seen in the past as “nice to have”.

NATS was a founder member of the Sustainable Aviation coalition 13 years ago and it remains unique in the world as a national aviation coalition focused on the environment.

The UK leads the way on aviation sustainability and the entire industry collectively believes it can drive towards cleaner, smarter, quieter operations by working together. 

However, we also recognise that we have negative externalities in terms of air quality, climate change and noise pollution, and that these need to be balanced against the positives.

Global carbon emission trading schemes, operational techniques to manage noise and the airspace modernisation programme that we are engaged with at NATS all have the opportunity to deliver a 14% reduction in emissions by 2050, even as the industry continues to grow.

I’m a passionate aviation professional, but I’m also an environmentalist, and I don’t believe those two things have to be mutually exclusive.

What technology or innovation trends aimed at further mitigating the environmental impact of aviation can we expect to see in the short to mid-term?

IJ: The huge agenda for NATS right now is airspace modernisation. London and New York are the two busiest airspaces in the world; NATS alone controls around 2.5 million flights every year.

However, we’ve not had a large-scale redesign of UK airspace for something like 50 years and have aircraft that are not leveraging the technology they have as much as they could.

We are implementing a root and branch redesign of the airspace based on satellite navigation for aircraft; this will give us huge amounts of additional capacity and deliver it in a sustainable way.

For the wider industry, electrification in the form of electric and hybrid electric-powered flight is currently a massive thing. For example, the Norwegian Government has committed to making all domestic flights electric by 2035. That could have a huge impact on the sector’s carbon footprint, because if you can charge a battery using renewable energy, you move towards net zero aviation.

Hybrid and pure electric will be used initially on short haul flights, but the technical challenges are huge; at present, battery technology is advanced enough sufficient to get an A320 or Boeing 747 off the ground. And to add to that, we are increasingly looking to sustainable alternatives to kerosene, in the form of sustainable bio or waste based fuels.

We are looking at how we can overcome these challenges with a view to having an aviation sector with zero net emissions – completely decarbonised through electric, bio-fuels and carbon offsetting and sequestration – by 2050. That’s a very exciting future for the industry.

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 iBeacon technology will provide indoor directions, walking times to gates, lounge access and boarding alerts

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