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Sector analysis: Airport airspace consultations grounded

Although relatively few people have realised, most of the UK’s 50+ airports would have organised public consultations in the coming year on potential changes to the use of local airspace.

They were planned as part of an EU-wide programme (Single European Skies) to improve the functioning of air traffic control throughout the continent. It is also necessary to replace the outdated ground-based radar used in our Airports with more modern and more flexible satellite navigation systems. It offers the prospect of making changes to the routes used for all Airport departures and arrivals – with implications for many communities affected by noise and air pollution.

Given the sensitivity of the issue and the increasing controversy about aviation and its contribution to global warming, the Government decided some years ago that there should be effective engagement and consultation written into the process. In January 2018, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) therefore launched a comprehensive set of new Guidance called CAP 1616. It details a methodology whereby each airspace ‘change sponsor’ has to go through seven Stages and four ‘gateways’ in order to have its proposals for route changes approved by the Regulator. It is a demanding process. The document is 218 pages; the Glossary alone is 15 pages. Full compliance is a challenge, but necessary to ensure communities are properly involved.

Commendably, the process requires Airports to engage extensively with local communities right from the outset. They become involved in defining ‘design principles’ and in influencing the way in which potential options (there can be great many!) are selected and assessed. These are Stages 1 and 2 of the process, and during 2019, many Airports undertook these demanding tasks, several of them receiving Advice and Guidance from the Consultation Institute.

Stage 3 is the all-important consultation phase, and these are, rightly, demanding exercises that need to conform to best practice principles. When Edinburgh Airport undertook such a consultation just before CAP 1616 came into force, it found itself engaged with half a million local residents with dozens of stakeholder organisations from small community councils to major employers, environmental campaigners and ad hoc groups of all shapes and sizes. The Institute provided an Independent Quality Assurance in order to ensure that best practice was observed.

As the 2020 coronavirus lockdown was announced, the Institute was working with seven different Airports all proceeding towards the consultation stage of their airspace change programmes. Several others were approaching this important point in the process. Inevitably, as operations ground to a halt in most Airports, as staff were furloughed and predictions of future traffic volumes became an impossible speculation, it became necessary to suspend this activity.

Right now, therefore, there are millions of people living around our Airports who may have heard that flightpaths may be subject to review but will not be consulted for as long as the airspace change programmes have been halted. In fairness, we all have other matters on our minds right now, but it is difficult to see how the airline industry and the airports, in particular, will re-build their business in the short-term.

So there are many questions. Will it be possible to suffer a delay, but proceed with the CAP 1616 process – just picking up from where it was left? Will the pre-consultation processes already undertaken be good for a resumed consultation when it comes? Or will the CAA need to revise its procedures to allow more flexibility? Will overflown communities, having experienced the absence of aircraft noise during the lockdown, express different views or strike different attitudes once near-normality returns? Will the Green lobby flex its muscles? After all, 260 UK Councils have declared a climate emergency. Or will local Councils and the business world prioritise jobs and the local economy above all else?

With this in mind, the Institute has published Briefing Note 24 entitled Airspace change consultations after the Pandemic.  It will clearly be of interest to the aviation industry, but should also be relevant to the 100+ local authorities in whose areas our major Airports lie. Their residents are among those most affected by changes to flight paths, and the way in which public engagement is conducted on matters of this importance is a key issue for council officers and elected members.

The Institute suggests three scenarios. For example, it anticipates that there might be a short delay before the CAP 1616 process can resume, largely unchanged. But it also explores the possibility that the process is further delayed and that some significant changes might consequently be necessary to the consultation arrangements. Finally, there is a more radical scenario whereby the programme has to be held for a still longer period allowing the opportunity to re-consider the process as a whole.  The aim is to stimulate active debate on what happens next.

Looking more widely, this situation illustrates how various sectors of the economy and public services will be affected differently by the coronavirus lockdown. The Aviation industry, along with tourism and hospitality, are badly impacted and have had to cease day-to-day operations for all practical purposes. But that is not the position elsewhere, and in the coming weeks, the Institute will offer its analysis of the situation in different sectors and the likely impact on public consultation and engagement.

We welcome views from members and supporters.

About the Author

Rhion Jones is considered a leading authority on Public Engagement and Consultation. A founding Director of the Consultation Institute, he is co-author of “The Art of Consultation” (2009) and “The Politics of Consultation” (2018). He has delivered over 500 training courses and Masterclasses and is a prolific writer on the subject, having written over 350 different Topic papers and over 50 full Briefing Papers for the Institute. Since 2003 over 15,000 person-days of training based on courses he invented have been delivered. Rhion is in demand as an entertaining Keynote Speaker and Special Adviser, particularly on the Law of Consultation, and its implications for Government and other Public Bodies. In 2017, he was awarded the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’.

Read more about Rhion

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