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Flight paths

The expansion of Heathrow will inevitably lead to changes to where and how planes fly in the future.

There are many different ways that flight paths can be designed, and we recognise the importance of ensuring that communities affected by changes have the opportunity to be involved.

Regardless of Heathrow expansion, there is also a major airspace modernisation programme underway across the UK. Heathrow is modernising its airspace at the same time as expansion, which will provide a once in a generation opportunity to improve the way Heathrow’s airspace is used.

Airspace key questions and answers

What is the Airspace Change Process (ACP)?

Changes to flight paths need to go through the Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) Airspace Change Process – this process sets out a number of steps we are required to carry out before any airspace changes can be approved by the CAA. This includes extensive engagement with relevant stakeholders, including local communities, throughout the process. More information about the Airspace Change Process can be found on the CAA website.

Note: Approval to build the physical infrastructure for an expanded airport will be obtained via a separate consent, known as a Development Consent Order (DCO).

When will we know where the flights path will be?

Because of the number of steps we need to go through before the final flight paths can be finalised, we do not yet know where the new flight paths will be.

We recognised from the start that this is a lengthy process with periods of uncertainty for communities living around Heathrow. However, the approach we are taking to engagement and consultation allows a number of opportunities for views to be provided throughout the design process and ensures the concerns of those potentially affected have been considered from the outset.

We have already undertaken two voluntary consultations on airspace change for an expanded Heathrow: a consultation on our ‘design principles’ in early 2018 and a consultation on ‘design envelopes’ (geographical areas where future flight paths could be positioned) in early 2019.

We will undertake a full public consultation of the flight path changes for expansion in 2022. This consultation will follow ongoing airspace design work and stakeholder engagement and will provide an opportunity for you to have your say on our proposed flight paths that aircraft will take when arriving at and departing from the airport.

What are the different stages of airspace consultation?

As well as ongoing engagement, we have proposed three main stages of consultation before the final flight paths needed to operate a three runway Heathrow are submitted for approval to the CAA. We have carried out two voluntary stages of consultation (on design principles and design envelopes respectively) and the flight path options will be set out in our final statutory consultation, scheduled for 2022.

Heathrow’s stages of airspace consultation

Stage 1 – voluntary consultation on design principles (2018)

Our first airspace public consultation for Heathrow expansion ran from January to March 2018 and took place at the same time as our first consultation on our developing DCO proposals. It sought feedback on a set of key design principles to be used to guide the design and structure of Heathrow’s future airspace.

To begin the process of developing what Heathrow’s design principles should be, in this consultation we provided some examples of different principles and asked people to tell us their preferred options.

For example, we asked whether we should design routes that look to minimise the total number of people significantly affected by noise or prioritise minimising the total number of new people overflown, or whether we should try to share flights over a wider area with the consequence of affecting more people.

We also gave people the opportunity to suggest their own design principles. We followed this consultation with a period of engagement to decide on the final design principles. These will help shape and underpin the design and structure of Heathrow’s future airspace going forward.

Stage 2 – voluntary consultation on design envelopes (2019)

The design principles were used to identify the geographic areas within which flight paths could be positioned, known as ‘design envelopes’. This process of identifying design envelopes was also informed by airspace design work to date as well as operational and capacity requirements.

We consulted and engaged with communities to ask what local factors should be taken into account when developing new flight paths within these design envelopes.

Stage 3 – statutory consultation on flight path options (~2022)

The feedback gathered during the first two stages of consultation (design principles and design envelopes) will help to inform the design of ‘flight path options’ (i.e. the actual routes aircraft will fly). These will be presented in a third and final stage of consultation, and feedback will be sought on these options. This final consultation is a formal requirement of the CAA’s Airspace Change Process.

The date of this final consultation is not fixed at present. This is because the DCO, if granted, will define certain limits that the airspace design will be required to stay within (such as noise). In addition, Heathrow’s airspace is also affected by other airspace changes at neighbouring airports and airfields, along with moves to modernise airspace across the UK. Before Heathrow’s routes can be finalised, we must make sure that they join up with these wider changes across the south east. This process includes ensuring that the new routes can be safely operated within the air traffic control system. Consequently, as well as awaiting the outcome of the DCO process, Heathrow’s final flight paths are partly dependent on the development of other changes and vice versa. This means that our timescales are linked to these other changes, which are not expected to be finalised before 2022.

Where is Heathrow now in the process?

The feedback from our first consultation has now been collated, analysed and fed into the production of a draft set of design principles. Alongside this, policy requirements were considered such as safety, capacity and the requirements set out in the Airports National Policy Statement to help decide how the principles should be prioritised.

To gain further feedback on this draft set of principles we undertook supplementary engagement with community and industry stakeholders. This subsequent feedback was collated, considered and used to produce a final set of design principles, including how we propose to prioritise these when designing future flight paths. A report setting out our design principles and evidence of engagement was submitted to the CAA on 31 August 2018.

The CAA has now completed their Define Gateway Assessment of our airspace design principles for an expanded Heathrow. The CAA is satisfied that we have met the requirements of the process up to this point, and has given approval for us for progress our Airspace Change Proposal to the next step in the process. This can be found on the CAA website.

You can also view our complete Design Principles submission on the Documents & Resources section of this website.