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Flight paths

Updated: 2nd October 2018

The expansion of Heathrow will inevitably lead to changes to where and how planes fly in the future. However, nothing has been decided yet.

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 at the earliest point.

Regardless of the expansion of Heathrow, 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 modernise and 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 – there are a number of steps we are required to go through before any changes can be approved by the CAA. This includes extensive engagement with relevant stakeholders, including local communities throughout the process. More information about the ACP can be found on the CAA website.

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

When will we know where the flights path will be?

Because of the different 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 recognise that this is a lengthy process which means that there will be a period of uncertainty for communities living around Heathrow. However, this approach will give you a number of opportunities to provide your views throughout the design process and ensure the views of  those potentially affected are considered from the outset.

What are the different stages of airspace consultation?

There will be three main stages of consultation and engagement before the final flight paths needed to operate a three runway Heathrow are decided.

Stages of airspace consultation

Stage 1 – design principles (2018)

The first stage of our airspace public consultation ran from January to March 2018 and took place at the same time as our first DCO consultation. It sought feedback on a set of key design principles that could 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 for people to tell us their preferred option.

For example, one of the design principles was about the design of new routes and people affected and asked should we design routes that look to minimise the total number of people significantly affected by noise or should we prioritise minimising the total number of new people overflown, or should we try and 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.

These design principles will help shape and underpin the design and structure of Heathrow’s future airspace going forward. (See below for more detail on our design principles)

Stage 2 – design envelopes (2019)

The design principles have been used to identify the geographic areas within which flight paths could be positioned within wider areas known as ‘design envelopes’. This process of selecting design envelopes will also be informed by operational and capacity requirements.

Once we have determined possible ‘design envelopes’, we will then consult and engage with communities to ask what local factors should be taken into account when developing new flight paths within these.

Stage 3 – flight path options (~2021)

The feedback gathered during the first two stages of consultation (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 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, 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 2021.

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.