High or low lights of our skies?

TODAY we ask 30 tough questions, in a bid to get to the bottom of what is happening in our skies. Felixstowe editor RICHARD CORNWELL pins the Civil Aviation Authority for the facts.

By Richard Cornwell

TODAY we ask 30 tough questions, in a bid to get to the bottom of what is happening in our skies. Felixstowe editor RICHARD CORNWELL pins the Civil Aviation Authority for the facts.

WHEN we glance up at the sky and wonder just how many planes are up there, we trust the authorities know the answer, and that limits are in place.

But today there are few facts to go on. The Civil Aviation Authority which is responsible for safety and economic regulation of British aviation, as well as consumer protection in commercial aviation, doesn't keep a record of the numbers involved.

It also admits nobody sets a limit on flights, as long as the air traffic controllers can cope.

The Evening Star launched Air Fair? campaign two years ago amid growing public concern over the numbers of aircraft, noise from planes - especially late at night - and the effect of vapour trails and fumes on the atmosphere.

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When the capacity of the Clacton Airspace - which includes the Felixstowe area - was increased by 30pc two years ago, there was little publicity about it. Only one council in Suffolk brought the matter into the public arena, while officers responded at other authorities. Suffolk Coastal, which has been affected the most, didn't bother to respond at all.

Although it is too late to help this area now, the CAA says the concern over consultation has been recognised and from March next year changes will be introduced to make sure the public have their say.

So it's time we knew some facts.

Here's our 30 questions and the CAA's answers:


Q: How many commercial planes are crossing Suffolk daily and annually (2005 figure) on flights to or from UK airports and foreign destinations? Which UK airports?

A: The CAA does not keep a record of aircraft movements in controlled airspace. Annual data on civil air transport movements at airports are available on the CAA Economic Regulation Group's website www.caa.co.uk/statistics.


Q: In particular, how many are using the controlled airspace over the Felixstowe peninsula each day?

A: Please refer to answer 1.


Q: How many planes are “overflying” the Felixstowe peninsula - ie not stopping at airports in the UK, simply heading for destinations further afield?

A: Please refer to answer 1.


Q: What is the maximum number of planes per day which could use the flight corridor over Felixstowe?

A: Any limitation on the maximum number of aircraft that could use controlled airspace would result only from air traffic control capacity constraints.


Q: How many are cargo planes and how many passenger flights?

A: The CAA does not keep records that detail the breakdown of flights within a particular volume of en-route airspace.


Q: What are the proportions of daytime and night-time flights?

A: The CAA does not keep records that specify a breakdown of day/night-time flights.


Q: Are there rules which govern night-time flying over urban areas? Do flights have to stop by a certain time?

A: There are no regulatory limitations on the hours of operation of controlled airspace except as determined at airports in accordance with local requirements or agreements.


Q: Who decides how many flights can take place over an area?

A: The number of flights in an area of controlled airspace is limited only by the capacity of the air traffic control system.


Q: What issues are examined concerning the wellbeing of the population living on the flight path?

A: The Secretary of State for Transport under section 70 of the Transport Act 2000 gives guidance to the CAA on environmental objectives relating to the exercise of its air navigation functions. The Guidance is available on the CAA website and lists the CAA's environmental Directions, also given by the Secretary of State under the 2000 Act. The CAA's statutory duties extend to taking the environmental impact of airspace change proposals into account when considering these proposals in accordance with the Airspace Change Process.


Q: Changes were made to the Clacton Airspace in 2004, which has since resulted in a big increase in the number of planes flying over Felixstowe. What extra capacity did the change create?

A: The 2004 change - known as the Clacton Airspace Change - was mainly to the north and east of Felixstowe and has been successful in expanding airspace capacity and reducing air traffic delays. The changes reflect the growth in air travel that has occurred in recent years.


Q: Has this capacity been reached yet - if not what is the increase in usage of the airspace since the change was brought into effect?

A: The CAA is not aware of any particular capacity constraints in respect of current airspace arrangements.


Q: When would the maximum capacity be expected to be reached, bearing in mind the government's predictions for the increase in air travel in the years ahead?

A: NATS (formerly known as National Air Traffic Services) is the UK en route air traffic service provider and would be responsible for assessing any need to establish new, or modify existing, controlled airspace to accommodate an actual growth in air transport movements.


Q: Is the Clacton controlled airspace the busiest in the UK? How does it rank with other areas?

A: The Clacton sector is known to be one of the busiest in the UK because of its proximity to the airspace boundaries of neighbouring states and due to its proximity to a significant number of international airports.


Q: How much is air travel currently increasing per year, ie number of flights?

A: There were 2.3 milllion air transport movements (landings and take-offs of commercial aircraft) at UK airports in 2005, six per cent more than in 2004. More data on air transport movements at UK airports and passenger numbers are available on the CAA website.


Q: We understand the lowest planes can fly over Felixstowe is 8,500ft under the changes which were made in 2004. Can they fly lower than this, or is this the absolute limit?

A: The base of controlled airspace immediately above the town of Felixstowe was not amended when the Clacton airspace change came into effect and remains at 5,500 feet. However, the base of the controlled airspace to the northwest and north of Felixstowe reduced from 13,500 to 8,500 feet and 10,500 feet respectively and has remained constant since the implementation of the 2004 changes. The remaining airspace between the surface and the base of controlled airspace is available to other users according to requirements. The majority of military training and civil recreational and instructional flying takes place outside controlled airspace; civil aircraft are bound by the Rules of the Air Regulations.


Q: What are the heights planes are allowed to fly over Ipswich? We understand this area can be used as a “holding area” for planes bound for Stansted.

A: The base of controlled airspace in this area is 8,500 feet. A Holding Pattern called LAPRA is located to the north of Ipswich in controlled airspace with a lowest holding level of 15,000 feet and is available when the ABBOT Hold at Sudbury is full. These Holding Patterns serve both Luton and Stansted Airports.


Q: Can further changes be made to the airspace without public consultation?

A: Please refer to answer below.


Q: There was concern over public consultation in 2004 when the county and district councils were asked for their views (responses then made by officers or not at all) and the wider public was not informed of the changes or their implications. Have there been moves to improve this system since to involve the public more fully? If so, how?

A: The CAA understands the importance and supports the need for public engagement on changes to airspace arrangements. Under revised arrangements set out in the Airspace Change Process Guidance Document (CAP725) due to be implemented on 31 March 2007, Airspace Change Sponsors will be required to engage and formally consult with all Regional, County, District and Borough Councils and unitary authorities whose areas are affected by the proposed changes. Airspace Change Sponsors are also required to publicise the consultation through the local media (such as local/regional newspapers and radio stations) to promote greater public awareness of the proposed changes. Other consultation events are also encouraged such as utilising open/public meetings as well as providing access to consultative material at some local libraries and via the Internet.


Q: The 2004 changes led to a judicial review in the High Court. Has this process been completed yet? If so, what was the outcome?

A: The case was 'stayed' by virtue of the parties reaching a settlement. This was without prejudice to the statutory duties of NATS or the CAA in respect of the consideration given to any future airspace change proposal, in particular, to consider all of the environmental impacts and to make a balanced decision based on the proper assessment of those impacts.


Q: There is growing environmental concerns about the impact of aircraft flying over urban areas - in the Felixstowe area, noise is the main concern, with air pollution and the effect of contrails blotting out the blue sky as secondary concerns. What role does the CAA have in protecting the public from these problems - and if not, whose role is it to do so?

A: Please refer to answer to Question 9.


Q: Have any assessments been carried out of the noise from the planes and the public's perception of the increased noise over the past few years?

A: The Government commissioned MVA to carry out research into the perception of aircraft noise. The study, entitled 'Attitudes to Noise from Aviation Sources in England (ANASE)' commenced in 2001 and is continuing.


Q: What measurements have been taken to examine air pollution from fumes and vapour trails over the area?

A: The CAA is unaware of any such measurements.


Q: What are the effects on the atmosphere of the vapour trails?

A: The CAA publishes an environmental information sheet on the subject of 'contrails', on its website www.caa.co.uk (airspace policy/ documents/ environmental information)


Q: Why are planes flying over Felixstowe when there is so much open countryside with fewer people living in it both north and south of the area?

A: The dimensions of these various areas of controlled airspace have been configured for maximum operational efficiency and are required to dovetail with complex arrangements over London to the south and west and with our continental neighbours to the north and east.


Q: Which UK airports are the planes flying to and from, and which countries are they travelling to and from?

A: At the lower altitudes the aircraft are mainly flying to and from Stansted and Luton. At the higher altitudes they include aircraft to and from a wide range of airports in the south of the UK and the Midlands. At the very higher levels they will include overflying traffic not landing at or departing from a UK airport. Luton and Stansted flight schedules will provide information on destination countries.


Q: At what height are these aircraft flying?

A: Variously, at minima of 6,000, 9,000, 11,000 feet and above, up to 45,000 feet, depending on the precise location (the boundaries of four different portions of controlled airspace now abut over the Felixstowe peninsular) and depending on whether the aircraft are arriving, departing or overflying.


Q: Could the current flights not be made to fly higher to cut noise?

A: The dimensions of these various areas of controlled airspace have been configured for maximum operational efficiency. Aircraft already usually fly as high as possible for as long as possible as this minimises fuel consumption. Increasing the height at which aircraft fly in controlled airspace could compromise the application by air traffic controllers of safe vertical separation and the onus placed on them to operate the airspace expeditiously and efficiently, which could, in turn, require aircraft to fly longer tracks over the ground in order to lose altitude.


Q: Are there restrictions concerning flight heights over populated areas?

A: Yes. The rules do not permit an aircraft in transit over any congested area of a city, town or settlement to fly below 1,000 feet above the highest fixed obstacle within 600 metres of the aircraft, except when landing and taking off. As there are no airports in the immediate vicinity of Felixstowe, there is no requirement to fly at this height and commercial air transport aircraft are operated within the confines of controlled airspace, which has a base of 5,500 feet immediately above Felixstowe.


Q: Commercial flights have only been using the airspace over Felixstowe regularly since the closure of Bentwaters and Woodbridge military air bases. Have you got figures for the past ten years to show air traffic crossing the area, both for Suffolk and for the Felixstowe peninsula corridor?

A: Commercial aircraft have been flying over Felixstowe for many years. The closure of Bentwaters and Woodbridge has no relevance to the activity currently taking place in controlled airspace over the Felixstowe area. As indicated in other answers, the CAA does not keep records of the use of controlled airspace.


Q: Which is the body people should complain to if they have concerns?

A: To the Department for Transport regarding UK aviation environmental policies or to the CAA in respect of general matters concerning the operation of airspace at:

Directorate of Airspace Policy

Focal Point for Aviation Related Environmental Complaints

K6 CAA House

45-59 Kingsway



In 2005, UK airports handled 229 million passengers - a rise of more than six per cent on 2004.

Air traffic controllers in the UK handle around 6,000 flights a day landing and taking off.


Do you think there are too many planes overhead?

Write to Star Letters, The Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or e-mail eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk.