Clapham junction of the skies

SOME 1,200 planes fly across Suffolk every day and air traffic is set to double in the next 20 years. Felixstowe editor RICHARD CORNWELL visited the National Air Traffic Services' control centre at West Drayton, London, to ask why such huge numbers of planes are directed over the county.

By Richard Cornwell

SOME 1,200 planes fly across Suffolk every day and air traffic is set to double in the next 20 years. Felixstowe editor RICHARD CORNWELL visited the National Air Traffic Services' control centre at West Drayton, London, to ask why such huge numbers of planes are directed over the county.

WATCHING the flickering green planes on the banks of dark screens, Felixstowe's jet plane problems can clearly be seen.

As I look over the shoulder of an air traffic controller, three huge passenger planes, almost side by side, head for Suffolk's premier seaside resort.

The planes - on a south-north course - had left Heathrow and Gatwick, coming across south London and then heading north, their bearings set many miles before they reach Suffolk.

Within minutes they are crossing the Felixstowe peninsula together.

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One is headed across the A14 at Trimley St Martin, another over the port, Morrisons and Trimley St Mary, and the third along the seafront.

At that very moment, a fourth plane comes in from the North Sea, flying east to west, straight up the River Deben, above or below the other three, heading for Stansted or Luton.

This is exactly what people in the Felixstowe area - the Clapham Junction of the skies - have been complaining about and here it was before my very eyes.

Minutes later more planes are heading across the radar screen in an endless convoy of jets coming and going from Britain's airports, all going over the Suffolk coast.

From the air traffic controller's viewpoint, there are no markings on the radar screen to say “This is Felixstowe - no overflying!”

The outline of the coast of East Anglia is visible, but unless you know your geography well, there is no way of telling where communities lay - no names, no roads, no hills, no landmarks.

Curiously Ipswich, though not marked by name, has a circle around it.

The controllers simply have to get the planes from A to B as directly, safely and easily as possible.

Under current airspace design, that means they fly straight in and out over Felixstowe, one after the other.

What no-one appears to be able to explain to me, is why these planes go right over the town on the same course every single time - why the corridor has been set over the resort.

Look into the sky on any morning and watch jet after jet, sometimes side by side, though three miles apart, on the same line - and then see them do the same route the same time the next day.

While there are thousands of square miles of sky, there has been outrage that planes take the same routes daily over towns and villages.

Air traffic controllers certainly don't have communities on the ground in mind when they direct the planes in and out of the congested airways above Britain's towns and cities. Their concerns are very different, keeping the planes apart, getting them to and from airports safely.

NATS officials say they are mindful of communities on the ground - now what we need to see is real evidence of that concern and a firm pledge not to increase the planes over heavily-populated areas.

The planes flying over Suffolk come not just from Stansted and Luton, but London City, Heathrow, Gatwick, East Midlands and others.

Pilots set the routes for their planes and once in controlled airspace they are supervised by air traffic controllers - currently at West Drayton but about to move to Swanwick, Hants - whose job is to ensure the planes stay three miles apart on the same height and at least 1,000ft above or below each other on different routes.

The controllers manage sectors of airspace, passing the planes from colleague to colleague as they move from one area to the next, eventually handing over to controllers in the towers at airports.

Controlled airspace - depending on the area - can be as low as 5,000ft and as high as 24,000ft, but with an average of 250 planes in the sky in any hour, each travelling hundreds of miles an hour, it looks like a minefield trying to guide them in and out of airports, across towns, cities, villages and countryside.

Do you think too many planes are flying over Suffolk? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN, or e-mail

A plane lands or takes off from Heathrow every 45 seconds.

AS if guided by laser, planes criss-cross the Felixstowe area on exactly the same routes, every day and every night.

Sometimes two or three abreast, with another flying 1,000ft under or above across their path. The noise of one jet fades as the next arriving rumbles across the landscape.

One Evening Star reader this week counted 15 planes in five minutes on an evening - and those were just the ones he could see from his house and did not include those flying over the seafront or other parts of the resort.

Four years ago, few planes crossed the peninsula at all. Then airspace was changed to allow a 30 per cent increase and there has been an explosion in cheap flights to destinations in eastern Europe, which all fly in and out straight across Suffolk.

With the government predicting air traffic will double in the next 20 years, that will mean 12,000 flights in UK airspace every day. Suffolk - the gateway to eastern Europe and Scandinavia, and long-haul to the Far East - will see a huge upsurge in planes and jet noise.

Airspace is being altered again to cope with the first phase of this expected growth but as yet there are no assurances that change will mean less planes - only fears it will mean more.

Carole Leslie, head of terminal airspace development for National Air Traffic Services (NATS), said the company needed to prepare for extra air traffic.

“We need to ensure planes can travel through our airspace in a safe, orderly and expeditious manner with minimum delay for customers (airports) and passengers,” she said.

“The growth of the major airports is well known but there are plans for rapid growth, too, at many of the smaller airports - such as Farnborough, Coventry, Southampton and Birmingham - and we need to be prepared for the demand and to handle the extra planes.

“We are talking about the busiest sector of controlled airspace in the world - 1.4 million of the 2.4 million planes a year handled by NATS fly through the London sector - and it will become busier.”

So what's the solution?

The Evening Star has suggested NATS look at a 'load sharing' system where planes could be directed on different bearings on certain days, giving communities quiet days.

Jane Johnston, head of external communications for NATS, said not all planes flew over the same areas every day and some days there were less scheduled planes flying than others.

To move planes north or south of an area would have a “knock on” effect - causing aircraft in the new area to move, then planes in the areas they move to would shift and so on.

“Suffolk and the eastern side of the UK has seen more planes because of the general growth of air travel and especially the growth of the emerging market for eastern Europe where the flights will go across the eastern counties,” she said.

“Air traffic is growing at about 4.5pc a year but the eastern Europe routes have been far higher.

“Planes don't all always use the same routes but airspace is a very tactical environment and air traffic controllers have to make sure planes fly through it as safely as possible and often the best route is the most direct and efficient.”

The proposed changes to airspace - which will come into force in 2009 if approved by independent regulating body the Civil Aviation Authority - are still being finalised.

15 - the number of major UK airports at which NATS handles all flights.

5,000 - NATS employees, 39 per cent of them air traffic controllers.

6,000 - the number of planes NATS' air traffic controllers handle every day.

2.4 million - how many flights in UK airspace NATS deals with in a year.

225 million - the number of passengers on flights handled annually.

1.7 billion Euros - cost of NATS' ten-year investment programme to improve its services.

Air Fair

Government is encouraging a dramatic increase in air travel - and that will have huge consequences for Suffolk's skies and the communities which live below them.

More than 1,200 planes currently cross Suffolk every day and the number is set to grow hugely - possibly double - in the next two decades

The planes bring noise, pollution, and blot out the sun with their contrails, and the fear is flights will get lower.

Our campaign agrees with and supports Stansted Airport at its current flight and passenger limits, but is against expansion of the airport which will have an intolerable impact on the quality of life of people in Suffolk.

It is against proposals to increase the number of passengers by ten million a year on possibly 75,000 extra flights, and against the building of a second runway which would more than double the current flights - another 300,000 a year.

The campaign wants a full review of pollution being caused by the jets - both the impact on ozone layer and on the environment at ground level - and of the increasing noise being caused by the aircraft 24/7.

We want assurances that planes will not be allowed to fly lower than the present lowest levels across Suffolk.

There must also be a full review of the current flightpaths to look at the possibility of moving flight corridors on a regular basis so the same communities do not suffer noise nuisance incessantly.

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