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Airline passengers could suffer delays of up to 20 minutes on every flight unless airspace is modernised, the head of the UK’s National Air Traffic Control Service (Nats) has warned.

Nats chief executive Martin Rolfe described existing flight paths – designed in the 1960s and 1970s – as “a network of B roads” which need urgent restructuring to make them more efficient.

The number of flights operating in UK airspace is expected to rise from two million last year to 3.1 million by 2030.

Mr Rolfe warned that if the current system is maintained then all flights will be delayed or expanded capacity, such as from a third runway at Heathrow Airport, will not be utilised.

He told the Press Association: “Either delays will soar from effectively no delay – or very little delay from an air traffic perspective right now – up to millions of minutes a year, which probably means every flight being delayed by 10, 15, 20 minutes.

“Or we end up in a position of any additional capacity that we build in the country – no matter where it is – not being usable and not being of any benefit because we don’t have the infrastructure in the airspace to support it.”

Research by Nats found that delays could rise from around 90,000 minutes a year today to four million by 2030 if nothing is done.

A coalition of airlines, airports and air traffic control have formed a group named The Sky’s The Limit, which is calling on the Government and other politicians to support airspace modernisation.

The Department for Transport is launching a consultation next year into the process of managing the UK’s airspace.

Mr Rolfe said: “Modernising how our skies are structured is vital, but we are already behind schedule and it is critical that the industry and government now work together to deliver change.”

He admitted that changing flights paths is “a contentious topic” as it means some communities have more planes flying above them.

Nats says modernisation of airspace would allow greater use of smooth, continuous descents and climbs, meaning aircraft would spend less time at low levels where they create more noise and are less efficient.

This would also reduce the need for conventional orbital holding – known as stacking – which would keep planes higher for longer.

Virgin Atlantic chief executive Craig Kreeger said the airline is minimising its environmental impact by investing in the latest aircraft but it needs a “modern airspace infrastructure to maximise the benefits”.

He added: “We’re calling on the Government to recognise the overwhelming positive case for change in terms of the wider economic value and the benefits for noise and emissions.”

A British Airways spokeswoman described the UK’s airspace as “outdated” and said improvements would provide “operational and environmental” advantages.

She went on: “It is imperative that progress is made to introduce these long-awaited improvements.”

According to Nats, airspace modernisation could help the aviation industry deliver its commitment of a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 compared with 2005.

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