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Airlines have secured a partial victory in their battle to ensure that scheduled flights can be given priority over private jets in the event of an airspace capacity crunch during the Olympic games.
In the event of disruption caused by bad weather or a security incident, ministers and regulators have concluded that air traffic controllers should be able to concentrate on getting scheduled flights in and out of London’s airports, ahead of business jets, for limited periods of time.
The move highlights how the government, regulators, air traffic controllers and airlines are all worried about being criticised if there are serious airspace problems during the Olympics.
The risk of hundreds of passengers on a scheduled jet missing Olympic events because of airspace-related delays, while a handful of executives on a private jet are allowed to land first is of obvious concern.
Carriers led by British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have therefore been calling for preferential treatment for scheduled services, particularly out of capacity constrained Heathrow airport.
Controllers at National Air Traffic Services responded by querying whether they could drop their longstanding practice of not discriminating between aircraft under a so-called first come, first served principle.
But one person close to the Civil Aviation Authority said Nats’ operating licence provides controllers with sufficient flexibility to prioritise airlines’ scheduled flights for limited periods following airspace disruption.
Theresa Villiers, aviation minister, told the Financial Times: “Nats already have the power to be relatively pragmatic in relation to prioritisation of different flights. I’m pretty confident Nats would have the ability to deliver on what the airlines want.”
One airline said it believed Nats’ licence allowed it to prioritise larger aircraft over smaller ones during periods of disruption.
Nats said its normal procedures would apply during the Olympics, adding it would be aiming to operate the UK airspace network “as safely and efficiently as possible”.
“If disruption is experienced, the various teams from Department for Transport, Nats, CAA, airports and airlines will be in constant communication to discuss the best solutions to mitigate potential delay across the network,” it said.
The airlines are hoping there will be a test exercise ahead of the Olympics to see how their scheduled services could be protected during airspace disruption.
However, the airlines have not secured everything they wanted, because they raised the possibility of NATS abandoning its first come, first served principle for the duration of the Olympics.
The games will put acute pressure on British airspace, which is already some of the busiest in the world.
About 500,000 visitors are estimated to be coming to the UK from overseas to watch the Olympics. The majority will travel on scheduled flights to Heathrow, where business jets are barred during the games. About 3,000 additional business jet flights are also expected during the Olympics.
Mark Wilson, chief operating officer of NetJets Europe, a leading private jet operator that will use London City airport during the Olympics, rejected the case for prioritising scheduled flights.
“We do not feel a simple prioritisation is necessary . . . the system as it exists on a day to day basis can be used to provide optimal use of airspace,” he said.