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Flight paths

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 undertaking the move to modernise 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, at this stage 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 affected stakeholders 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 i.e. 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.

These design principles will help shape and underpin the design and structure of Heathrow’s future airspace going forward.

Stage 2 – design envelopes (2019)

Once we have an agreed set of design principles we will then use these principles to begin to narrow down and present 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 the consult and engage with communities to ask what local factors should be taken into account when developing new flight paths within these ‘design envelopes’.

Stage 3 – flight path options (2021 tbc)

The feedback gathered during the first two stages of consultation (principles and envelopes) will help to inform the design of ‘flight path options’ (i.e. the actual routes aircraft will fly), which will be presented in a third and final stage of consultation and feedback will be sought on these options. This final consultation is formal requirement of the CAA’s formal 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 and 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 partly linked to the other changes which are not expected to be finalised before 2021.

Where is Heathrow now in the process?

The feedback received from the Stage 1 ‘design principles’ consultation is being analysed. Further stakeholder engagement is also being carried out as we consider numerous other factors and principles that need to be taken account of – and whether any additional principles should be considered – and finally to help determine how the design principles should be prioritised overall.

When this is complete, we will submit our design principles to the CAA for review. This is a requirement of the CAA’s formal airspace change process. Once approved by the CAA, the ‘design principles’ will then be used to feed into our second stage consultation planned for 2019 on ‘design envelopes’.