Opinion: North Atlantic Changes Bring Planning, Ops Considerations

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The business aviation industry has been demonstrating its commitment to continued modernization, operational improvements and an attention to environmental concerns during the last several years. 

This was further shown recently in a post published by UK NATS, which announced structural changes to the North Atlantic (NAT) Organized Track System (OTS). Though the change may seem small, the eventual impact could be significant, and there are a few things operators should keep in mind as these changes start to go into effect.

As of March 1, 2022, the OTS in the NAT region no longer includes Flight Level 330 or below. In airspace that has seen very little structural changes since back in the 1960s, this may just be the first step in a significant shift to traffic routing in that area. Aircraft now transiting the oceanic airspace at FL330 or below can plan free from any OTS operating rules.

The removal of FL330 and below as planned OTS altitudes will allow operators to have greater planning flexibility and create more route options for heavier aircraft and those with lower service ceilings.

The ability to file more optimized random routes, without the constraints of the OTS imposed rules at higher altitudes, should lead to increased fuel savings as operators can fly the routings and speeds they desire. This should also have the added benefit of reducing flight times and subsequently carbon emissions.

As operators enjoy this added flexibility, there are both planning and operational considerations operators need to remember.

Planning Considerations

•    Apply correct longitude crossing rules.

If you plan a flight on a random route at levels FL330 and below, waypoints will need to be planned so that 10-deg. of longitude (20°W, 30°W, 40°W, etc.) are crossed at whole or half degrees of latitude.

•    Ensure Field 15 of your ICAO flight plan is filled out correctly. 

Flights that are planned on random routes but eventually join an organized track at a defined point of that published track are still handled as a random route. The route must be clearly indicated in field 15 of the ICAO flight plan and the actual track letter (such as NAT A for example) of the track you plan to join, should not be used in the route string.

•    Plan fuel for assigned flight levels.

When including a level change on your flight plan you must keep in mind that this is a request only, and not a guarantee. Approval of flight level change requests are entirely dependent on traffic, weather and availability. Therefore, adequate fuel should be considered in the event the request is not granted.

Operational Considerations

•    You still need OTS messages.

Remember, even if your flight is not planned in the OTS, you must still carry a copy of the NAT track message on board the aircraft, including any amendments.

•    You still need datalink.

The removal of planned tracks at FL330 does not remove the requirement for your flight to comply with the Data Link Mandate which is in effect between FL290 and FL410 inclusive. When flying within these bands in the NAT HLA region you must be equipped with and approved to use FANS 1/A+.

This change is another example of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic although possibly one that is moving the business aviation industry in the right direction.

Over the last two years, there was a drastic reduction in NAT traffic, at one time being so low that the industry went almost 20 days without a single track being published (OTS Nil). This experience ultimately accelerated plans to introduce these airspace optimization changes.

Additionally, the introduction of Aireon’s satellite-based surveillance in 2019, which now plots aircraft positions every 8 seconds rather than the previous 14 minutes, has helped give the final push.

The overall impact of this type of change to the OTS in the NAT could be significant and help with the industry’s ongoing efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lower business aviation’s environmental impact while still of course considering safety.

Clement Meersseman is the senior advisor of international procedures for AviationManuals, leading the strategic partnerships team and serving as a senior advisor, specializing in international aviation compliance, procedures and safety for the private aviation sector.