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Intercontinental aircraft routes over the Western Isles will change forever now that air traffic supremos NATS have implemented the biggest ever geographical airspace change in the UK, removing long-established air routes over Scotland and freeing aircraft to choose their most direct flight path.

With up to 2,000 flights using this crucial part of UK airspace every day, and supporting 80% of transatlantic traffic, this introduction will save CO2 every year equivalent to the power used by some 3,500 family homes (12,000 tonnes CO2/year).

The new Free Route Airspace (FRA) covers approximately 150,000nm2 of airspace over the North Sea, Scotland, North Atlantic, Northern Ireland and a small portion of northern England – a footprint over twice the size of the UK.

The new design has no noticeable difference on the ground, only affecting aircraft above 25,000ft but it will mean routes across the isles marked by vapour trails of a succession of aircraft will vanish as each one chooses the route that suits it best.

NATS has been developing the Free Route Airspace (FRA) concept in UK airspace for over five years. It allows airlines freedom to take the optimal route considering variables such as weather and wind speed – flexibility that seemed impossible in the past.

But as technology has moved forward and cross-border collaboration has evolved it has become a reality today helping to reduce cost, fuel burn, flight time and CO2 emissions.

By 2030, the aviation industry is targeting an overall reduction of at least 15% in net CO2 emissions relative to 2019, and a 40% net reduction by 2040. While the greatest CO₂ savings will be made through new aircraft and engine technology, these are still many years away, and even sustainable fuels are unlikely to be available on a significant scale this decade. In the short term, managing our airspace more effectively, and flying more efficiently, can play a crucial role – and that’s where NATS’ introduction of airspace modernisation comes in. Today’s introduction of Free Route Airspace over Scotland marks a leap forward for airspace modernisation in the UK and an important step towards achieving net-zero by 2050.

Aviation Minister, Robert Courts said: “Airspace modernisation will ensure flights are quicker, quieter and cleaner, and I welcome NATS’ first deployment of Free Route Airspace in the UK as part of this. I look forward to seeing further progress on the airspace modernisation programme, which will be key in helping us reach net zero emissions by 2050.”

Lee Boulton, Head of Airspace Development, said: "The routes traditionally used were decided many decades ago, when navigational techniques and aircraft technology were very different. At the time it made sense to think of routes much like fixed motorways in the sky – to get from A to B you would travel along one corridor until you got to a junction that let you change direction towards your destination, which is often not the most direct route.

The removal of all upper air routes in approximately one third of UK airspace allows airlines to fly the most fuel efficient and timely routes. It will support the industry’s recovery from Covid-19 by improving efficiency, reducing flight times, and reducing emissions equivalent to that of 3,500 homes every year. Despite the challenges caused by the pandemic, NATS is continuing with plans to modernise airspace over the coming years."


The environmental advantages of FRA increase exponentially with the amount of airspace it covers. This is the first of four proposed deployments introducing FRA in the UK. When FRA is fully implemented across Europe (currently targeting the end of 2027), Eurocontrol predicts the following benefits:

  • 500,000 fewer nautical miles flown/day
  • 3,000 fewer tonnes of fuel burnt/day
  • 10,000 fewer CO2 tonnes/day
  • 3 million Euros in fuel cost savings/day

NATS is the UK’s principal air navigation services provider and is split into two main businesses, which provide two distinct services: 

  • NATS (En Route) plc (NERL) — the regulated business, which provides air traffic management services to aircraft within UK airspace and over the eastern part of the North Atlantic; and 
  • NATS (Services) Ltd (NSL) — the unregulated business, which provides air traffic control services at many of the UK’s major airports (13 civil and 7 military airfields) and other airports overseas. 

NATS provides aerodrome, data, engineering, capacity, efficiency and environmental performance solutions to customers worldwide, including airports, airlines, air traffic service providers and governments.    

NATS handled 661,000 flights in the UK in the last financial year (2020/21), a reduction of 73% reflecting Covid-19 travel restrictions.  

For more information visit the NATS website at     

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