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Is public ownership the solution to regional connectivity in the UK?

Is public ownership the solution to regional connectivity in the UK? Public ownership seems to be a topic that was hot on the agenda around the time of the 2019 General Election, with Labour promising to bring the railways back under government control. Since the election ‘regional connectivity’ has become a new buzz word. With a Conservative government in power having won a large majority, partly due to capturing swathes of historic Labour seats. Regional connectivity has to be a hot topic, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said many times, the country needs ‘leveling up’ across all regions. This is a commitment the new government have made to the British people. But how can this be achieved?

In a sign of the Prime Minister’s commitment to levelling up all regions of the UK, the government has announced additional measures to support regional connectivity across the UK, to ensure all corners of the country drive the economy, and fully benefit from prosperity in years to come.

By now we are all well aware of HS2, a rail network connecting the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ with London. The first stage of which will connect the West Midlands to the Capital is scheduled to be open in 2028 with phase 2 to be complete by 2035. This certainly doesn’t feel like an immediate solution to regional connectivity and connecting Leeds, Manchester and the West Midlands to London doesn’t sound like leveling up all nations of the United Kingdom. 

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If only there was a solution to this problem that is already established and ‘ready to go’? There is, or at least there was until 5th March this year – regional aviation, specifically the network and infrastructure of Flybe. Flybe offered vital transport links, many of which were not served by any other mode of transport let alone another airline. Links between places like the Isle of Man and Liverpool, which was a lifeline for the NHS, between Belfast City and many UK cities, used by business across the UK and finally Newquay to London, a route which would otherwise take over 5 hours making a day trip impossible. It is obvious that beyond the aviation sector these transport links do not exist and are not likely to exist in the near future. Of Flybe’s 12 million+ passengers per annum, 50% were business passengers, 80% of passengers flew within the UK and approximately 75% were regular travelers. Many million meetings, appointments, contract signings or approvals that will now, without Flybe, be much more difficult to achieve, all at a time when they are needed most. In a country experiencing social isolation the desire for face to face meetings with colleagues, friends and family will create more demand for the regional aviation market. Some airlines have stepped in, but the number of connections is small, frequency is very low and at grossly inflated prices. Furthermore, many of these carriers have announced these routes have been placed ‘on hold’ indefinitely raising the question, will these routes ever be restarted?

Cornish holiday resort Newquay, for one, has no direct rail services from London for much of the year and the journey takes about five hours. But Flybe could get you from London Heathrow to Newquay airport in little more than an hour. Flybe was due to re-route its Newquay flights to Gatwick at the end of this month, but that plan has now fallen victim to the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on demand for air travel. If you live in the Isle of Man, Flybe’s service has literally been a lifeline. The airline had a contract with the government to transfer NHS patients from the island to medical facilities in Liverpool when they required treatment that could not be provided closer to home. At the moment, it is unclear what will happen to that service.

What about the financial viability of a regional carrier like Flybe? It is no secret that regional aviation isn’t the most profitable area of the aviation sector, which is why Public Service Obligation (PSO) routes exist. Across Europe, many PSO routes exist to provide a crucial lifeline to communities that rely on connectivity that wouldn’t necessarily be financially appealing to the larger carriers. In the UK these routes are few and far between leaving regional airlines such as Flybe, Loganair and Eastern Airways footing the bill. Surely this has to change in order to ‘level up the country’? Beyond the use of PSO routes, a regional carrier must have a strong business plan, supported by identity to keep up with the larger carriers such as easyJet or Ryanair. Flybe had this and was certainly on the road to delivering a turnaround strategy with a strong business plan which had gained support from the company shareholders and many senior civil servants working directly with the government. This business is viable, it will succeed, and it is crucial to the UK’s success over the coming months and years. With all of the factors discussed above, it would appear that this is the perfect business to be brought under government control and into public ownership. A national airline that supports the vision of government whilst providing vital support to all communities of the UK, not run by billionaires looking to make a quick profit but to provide a truly viable source of regional connectivity, without an agenda that would level up the country.

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It wouldn’t be fair to have this conversation without mentioning the environmental impact of the aviation industry, which is such a hot topic at the moment. This is where the Dash 8 Q400 aircraft sits in a league of its own. The aircraft has 50% less CO2 emissions than the latest jet aircraft, 30% lower fuel burn than a regional jet and is between 30% and 50% quieter than a jet aircraft on take-off. This really is an aircraft that is perfect for the regional aviation market whilst providing fuel efficiency to drive prices down and lower emissions than its rival jet aircraft to help reduce the environmental impact of the industry.

With the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc around the UK the true impact of Flybe’s collapse has not really been felt, however, it is likely to felt across the country with widespread job losses, not only for the 2000 plus staff employed by Flybe but also at airports nationwide. Let us now, however, look to the future and brighter times once we have as a nation, triumphed over Covid-19. There will be much rebuilding work that has to be done, both socially and economically. The government finances will need all the help they can to recover. This is where business must play its part, however, UK business will be trying to achieve this with one hand tied behind it’s back. There will be a need and demand for connectivity across the UK to provide vital transport links to communities that are currently unserved. 

Written by Paul Green former Flybe FO

Why is my flight delayed in foggy weather?

Why is my flight delayed in foggy weather? It sometimes surprises visitors to an airport tower just how visual the job is. Controllers in the Visual Control Room are physically looking at the aircraft they’re guiding, with minimal use of radar. The clue is in the name, I suppose!

But during periods of bad weather such as fog, like parts of the UK are experiencing today, the rest of the airport can become completely invisible from the tower.

In these circumstances control has to switch to radar and ‘low visibility procedures’ to ensure airport operations can continue safely. These special procedures cover aircraft on approach and departure, as well as movements on the ground.

A foggy Gatwick Airport by zzathras777 via Flickr

In foggy conditions, aircraft use the Instrument Landing System (ILS) at the airport to be automatically guided to the runway – they are effectively following the ILS beam all the way to touch-down. It is therefore important that we protect the beam from any interference, such as from other aircraft on the runway.

This means spacing between aircraft has to be increased, with an aircraft having to touch-down and taxi far enough away from the runway such that it no longer interferes with the ILS beam before the next one can be given landing clearance. Typically this means the spacing between aircraft has to increase by up to 50%.

Aircraft are also more widely spaced when manoeuvring or taxiing, whether they’re arriving or departing.

All this takes extra time, effectively taking capacity out of the airport with the end result often being delays to passengers sitting in the terminals.

Whenever there’s bad weather we work very closely with airlines and airport operators to handle safely as many flights as possible and minimise the disruption.

As ever, if you’re concerned about the effect bad weather might have on your flight, you should contact your airline which will be able to provide you with the latest information.

What happens when a plane gets struck by lightning?

What happens when a plane gets struck by lightning?: You might have read the story of Virgin Airways flight VS65 which was hit by lightning last Wednesday, just 10 minutes after departing Gatwick Airport on its way to Montego Bay…

Aircraft are hit by lightning far more frequently than you might think and, although this could cause serious damage and result in lengthy delays, most of the time it goes completely unnoticed.

Thanks to the design and structure of modern aircraft, lightning strikes tend to be ‘over in a flash’ and have no serious consequences. But, when a pilot needs to land because of significant damage, air traffic control plays a pivotal role in managing the flow of aircraft through our airspace and getting them back to ground safely.

If a pilot suspects that the aircraft has been hit by lightning and believes that damage has occurred, they will contact air traffic control and tell us that they need to return to the nearest airport. Where the pilot has declared an emergency, he will be given a priority approach.

Our controllers are used to this kind of disruption to air traffic and pilots are no stranger to a ‘go-around’ – often caused by an infringer flying in controlled airspace without permission, or heavy winds!

Dealing with bad weather is one of the most difficult things for air traffic controllers to manage. Its unpredictable nature means aircraft aren’t able to fly their usual routes, resulting in unusual flight patterns that add hugely to the complexity of the airspace and the workload for each controller.

However, the training our air traffic controllers receive ensures that even the most disruptive events are safely managed!

View more of our blog posts with interesting views and news stories on the aviation industry, pilot training and more.

FEAR OF FLYING – GUIDE TO TURBULENCE

FEAR OF FLYING – A PILOT’S GUIDE TO TURBULENCE: There are different types of turbulence, mainly from rapid changes in wind direction and strength, which make the aeroplane accelerate, decelerate, or move side to side. It’s these movements, sometimes several at once, that can be uncomfortable whilst flying as a passenger, make it harder to drink your gin and tonic, read your magazine, or from my end – do my inflight paperwork! An aircraft is designed to be stable, meaning if turbulence forces the plane from its original path, it is designed to return to its previous straight, level flight without any positive control from the pilots. For most of the duration of the flight, the autopilot is flying the aircraft, and its job to keep the aircraft flying the way the pilots have commanded it to, even after being disrupted by any turbulent air. The main sensation during turbulence is the aircraft climbing or descending, potentially resulting in a feeling in your stomach similar to that you get from driving over a hidden dip in the road.

IF YOU DISLIKE THE SENSATION OF FLYING DURING TURBULENCE, SIT OVER THE WINGS OF THE AIRCRAFT.

The feeling of climbing or descending initially is the result of the turbulence, followed by the opposing direction as the aircraft reacts to it. These changes feel more drastic when sitting at the rear of the aircraft, as whilst the aircraft begins to climb, the tail moves downward and you will have the unusual sensation of being pulled out of your seat. If you sit over the wing, the aircraft pitches around its centre axis, resulting in a smaller sensation of movement as a passenger.

The aircraft will rarely change altitude by any more than 50 feet, which honestly is insignificant in proportion to its cruising level of around 37,000ft. Although to some it may feel that way, I promise that the aircraft isn’t falling out of the air, and the change of wind direction is never great enough to result in the aeroplane to stop generating its lift that it creates to fly! Although the sensation can be unsettling, passenger aircraft are built to withstand turbulence, and every pilot completes training in how to recognise the signs of turbulence and avoid it when possible, and how to make the flight as comfortable as possible for the passengers. There are 4 main types of turbulence:- Clear Air Turbulence- Thermal (associated with clouds, especially those big fluffy cumulous clouds you see on a hot day!)- Mechanical (caused by the airflow over physical features, mountains, buildings, trees)- Wake turbulence (caused by other aircraft generating lift, the larger the aircraft, the larger the wake)  

Clear Air Turbulence

This type of turbulence is caused by changes in the wind at high level, although high winds may not indicate turbulence. An increase or decrease of wind strength, entering or flying through a jetstream, or a change in temperature, can all create CAT. Although our weather radar cannot display areas of this type of turbulence, CAT can be predicted in our preflight preparations by studying the forecast windshear, areas of jetstreams and pilot reports. We’ll do our best to avoid any turbulence if possible, and other pilots are often helpful in recommending if the area they are flying in is bumpy or smooth. Sometimes unfortunately, we’ll just have to wait until it stops, but we have the option to climb or descend if we know that the area around us will be more comfortable.  

Thermal Turbulence

I initially learned how to fly in gliders; as I flew without an engine I would look to stay in areas of hot, rising air to stay airborne for as long as possible. A good indication of an area of thermals were large, cauliflower cumulous clouds, which are formed by moist, unstable air rising faster than the area surrounding it. As the moisture condenses, the air becomes stable and eventually stops rising.  When entering a cloud, we fly through this rising air, which often causes a short period of turbulence. As the aircraft I currently fly is larger and flies faster than a glider, the result is often a couple of bumps until the plane leaves the offending cloud! Imagine driving over a speed bump on a bicycle compared to going 70mph in a car, the result is exactly the same whilst flying. In the cruise we are flying at around speeds of 500mph, resulting in that small bump appearing to be more dramatic than it is in reality!  Generally speaking, there are fewer clouds the higher you fly, although the faster you fly the turbulence may seem more pronounced. Whilst flying, we use a weather radar that detects the water particles in the air, with a colour code to indicate the density and turbulence associated with the clouds ahead. We use this radar to avoid any larger, cumulonimbus clouds which also indicate thunderstorms, and communicate with Air Traffic Control to ensure that we maintain a safe distance from the unstable, rising and descending air surrounding the storm.  

Mechanical Turbulence

This type of turbulence is caused by the airflow moving around a large object, a mountain like in Gibraltar, or a large building close to the runway. Landing at my home base in Dublin can sometimes be a little bumpy when the wind is coming over the nearby Wicklow Mountains, or London Gatwick can be affected by wind changing direction around a hangar near the runway. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot that we can do whilst flying to these destinations, although we are often familiar and comfortable with this type of turbulence, and as it’s always forecast we can prepare prior to experiencing it!  

Wake Turbulence

Wake turbulence is a created by the airflow over an aircraft’s wing that also enables it to generate lift and fly, and the chances of us experiencing wake turbulence whilst flying are very small thanks to our colleagues in Air Traffic Control. ATC ensure thatwe are at a safe distance from any aircraft that may affect us with their own turbulence. There are rules and regulations that both pilots and ATC follow regarding the distance from another aircraft, especially between larger and smaller aircraft, (an Airbus A380 is in its own category!), ensuring that there is a safe period of time between departing aeroplanes.  Although turbulence is uncomfortable and inconvenient, the pilots and the aircraft are more than capable of dealing with what nature throws our way! Ensure when you’re flying you keep your seatbelt on (like the pilots always do) in case your flight does encounter any unexpected bumps, but try to relax and appreciate that although it may not feel that way, the aircraft is still in controlled flight and is built to withstand more than 50% of the worst forces that turbulence may throw its way. Captain Sullenburger recommends that prior to a flight close your eyes as a passenger in a car and make note of the frequency and intensity of every vibration, jolt and noise. The car journey is likely to be much more turbulent than your average flight, and statistically, the drive to the airport is much more dangerous than flying in a commercial airliner! Do you have any other fears or concerns whilst flying? Comment below and I’ll aim to answer any queries as part of my new Fear of Flight series.

What is an Air Operators Certificate?

What is an Air Operators Certificate? An Air Operator Certificate (AOC) is a certificate authorizing an operator to carry out specified commercial air transport operations. (ICAO Annex 6)

Description

An air operator certificate (AOC), sometimes alternatively described as an Air Operator Permit (AOP), is the approval granted from a national aviation authority (NAA) to an aircraft operator to allow it to use aircraft for commercial purposes. This requires the operator to have personnel, assets and systems in place to ensure the safety of its employees and the general public. This document will as a minimum detail the aircraft types which may be used, for what purpose and in what geographic region.

“… prior to commencing commercial air operations, the operator shall apply for and obtain an air operator certificate (AOC) issued by the competent authority.” (IR-OPS ORO.AOC.100 Application for an air operator certificate)

An operator shall not operate an airplane for the purpose of commercial air transportation otherwise than under, and in accordance with, the terms and conditions of an Air Operator Certificate (AOC). (EU-OPS 1.175 (a))

IR-OPS ORO.AOC (EU-OPS 1.175) details the general rules for Air Operator Certification.

An AOC specifies the:(a) Name and location (principal place of business) of the operator;(b) Date of issue and period of validity;(c) Description of the type of operations authorised;(d) Type(s) of aeroplane(s) authorised for use;(e) Registration markings of the authorised aeroplane(s) except that operators may obtain approval for a system to inform the Authority about the registration markings for aeroplanes operated under its AOC;(f) Authorised areas of operation;(g) Special limitations; and(h) Special authorisations/approvals e.g.:

Categories

AOCs can be granted for one or more of the following activities:

Requirements

The requirements for obtaining an AOC vary from country to country but are generally defined as:

The certificate is held by a legal person who resides in the country or region of application (for EASA)

International variations

An AOC is referred to as an Air Carrier Operating Certificate in the USA.