Additional capacity could be created at Europe’s most congested airports by further-optimizing separation times, according to new research by UK air traffic management (ATM) provider NATS.

A series of NATS simulations, based on operations at London Heathrow Airport, have shown that a more bespoke approach to aircraft separations could be more efficient and allow for more movements.

Currently, departing aircraft are grouped into broad categories, such as ‘heavy’ or ‘medium,’ depending on their wake vortices. “This current categorization means that separations between individual aircraft could be larger than is necessary to ensure safe separation,” NATS said, detailing the outcome of its research.

Instead, NATS simulated ‘pairwise’ separations, where safe separation is calculated based on the wake created by each individual aircraft type. The team also looked into how weather conditions, such as cross winds, could dissipate turbulence more quickly and be accounted for in the model.

“Whilst these are early stage prototype simulations, the findings have been promising and demonstrate the potential to help airports such as Heathrow, as well as others across Europe, to further enhance runway throughput. We will now use this information and work with our partners within the European Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research (SESAR) 2020 program to prepare for more advanced simulations in 2018,” NATS Wake optimization concepts and analysis lead Claire Pugh said.

Further simulations are planned by other members of the project throughout 2017 and 2018.

The work comes under ‘Increased Runway and Airport Throughput’ section of the SESAR 2020 program, building on earlier research into wake vortex optimization and time-based separation (TBS). TBS is already in use at Heathrow and has significantly reduced delays caused by strong headwinds.

Victoria Moores