Wind the clock forward 100 years and much that defines modern life depends on aviation. Now we face another paradigm shift as a new generation of airspace users, with uncrewed and remotely piloted vehicles, electrification, and extremely high-altitude platforms among others, mark the next chapter in our aeronautical journey.
Given the advances of the last century in airframes and propulsion, airspace is one notable element of our industry that has been much slower to embrace radical change. Of course, it has undergone incremental adaptations to meet growing demand; but the hallmarks of its original design back in the 1950s are still very much in evidence. And what provided resilience in the past will not provide us with the resilience we need for the future.
Today in UK airspace we safely and efficiently handle more than two million flights every year – more than those pioneers could ever have imagined (and with one of the lowest delay rates in Europe). NATS is very future-focused because we have to be. We handle a quarter of Europe's traffic despite having only 11% of its airspace; we are a major transatlantic gateway with one of the world’s premier hub airports at Heathrow, scheduled to 98% of its capacity, and we operate one of the most complex networks in the world in the London TMA with five major airports within a tight geographic radius. Resilience is key to what we do, and we know only too well what happens when we don't have enough.
Aviation has always been an interesting bellwether of the global economy, inherently cyclical with peaks and troughs throughout the year becoming more pronounced as economies grow or recede – aviation is used to dealing with uncertainty. COVID-19 took this to a new extreme as the world closed down. Traffic dropped to less than 10% of normal levels in 2020 and recovered in 2022 to more than 80% of 2019 levels. The story of what happened during those two years has tested the resilience of our industry to the maximum as markets around the world have opened and closed at different times and in different places, in response to unfolding events. And of course, even though commercial traffic may have stopped, airspace remained open and fully resourced to support cargo, PPE and emergency flights.