UK's NATS to trial new plane-tracking tech for busy North Atlantic

DUBLIN (Reuters) - UK air traffic management company NATS will trial real-time tracking technology over the busy North Atlantic to give more flexibility in flight routes and to handle rising traffic, it said after taking a stake in tracking technology company Aireon.

The Aireon space-based system for real-time tracking of aircraft fills a gap in the industry highlighted by the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which went missing on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in March 2014 and which still hasn’t been found.

Instead of sending tracking signals to ground stations - which means that aircraft locations can be lost over oceans or remote areas - Aireon’s system will beam them to satellites providing global coverage. It uses existing data from planes so does not require any modifications to aircraft.

NATS has taken a 10 percent stake in Aireon for $69 million, it said on Wednesday, and plans to trial the technology from 2019.

Over the North Atlantic, planes currently follow strict flight corridors and separation limits to ensure they remain at a safe distance from each other in an area where aircraft can’t currently be tracked in real time.

NATS said that real-time tracking technology would allow them to handle growing flight volumes and offer airlines fuel-saving routes. Fuel is one of the biggest costs for airlines.

It could also mean separation distances between plans could be reduced to 15 nautical miles from 40 currently, which would free up air space.

“The North Atlantic is the busiest area of oceanic airspace in the world and the gateway to Europe, but its routes have now reached their limit of capacity with existing technology,” said NATS Chief Executive Martin Rolfe.

“We are delighted to now have a way to safely fulfill the ever-growing demand from our customers.”

NATS handled 2.6 million flights in 2017, covering the UK and eastern North Atlantic from centers in Britain. Of that, 500,000 flights were through North Atlantic airspace and NATS cited estimates that the figure could rise to 800,000 by 2030.

“Being able to control this volume of flights as well as offer airlines the routes they want at a speed that suits them would generate a net saving of more than $300 in fuel and 2 tonnes of CO2 per flight,” NATS said.

Reporting by Victoria Bryan; Editing by David Goodman