United Kingdom’s NATS takes 10% Aireon stake

NATS has taken a US$69 million, 10 per cent stake in Aireon, developer of the world’s first space-based global air traffic surveillance system.

Aireon and NATS made the announcement at a press conference on May 16 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

The decision comes as Aireon’s global air traffic surveillance and tracking system continues to move closer to full deployment with 39 active payloads receiving 9 billion aircraft position report messages per month.

Aireon, a joint venture that was launched by Iridium and NAV CANADA in June 2012, will allow air navigation service providers to continuously track aircraft anywhere in the world through a network of 66 low Earth orbiting Iridium NEXT satellites receiving Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) signals on equipped aircraft.

Since its launch, the joint venture between the original partners has been joined by additional investors: Italy’s ENAV, Ireland’s IAA and Denmark’s NAVIAIR.

NATS, a major provider of  air traffic control services over the Atlantic where aircraft tracking via satellite to provide radar-like surveillance would be a significant benefit, was tipped to make an early decision on investing in the Aireon joint venture. It decided instead to become a ‘charter’ customer, signing a 12-year agreement for data services in 2014.

One industry insider confided that while the original decision not to invest was due mainly to the lack of appetite by NATS’ major investors at the time, NATS’ use of Aireon technology over the Atlantic could represent a significant source of revenue. “Otherwise, ENAV, NAVIAIR and IAA would end up making money selling a service to NATS,” he pointed out.

Last year, NATS controllers handled 500,000 flights through North Atlantic airspace, which is 80 per cent of all transatlantic traffic, and by 2030 industry estimates project that to grow to almost 800,000 flights.

NATS chief executive Martin Rolfe, when questioned about the investment U-turn said: “Deals come about when it is the right time to do a deal. For us, the timing was right. The make-up of NATS changes over the years and obviously what we see as our priorities in terms of our future overseas operations, our domestic operations.

“Basically, it was one of those things where the timing is right, the risk profile is right, everything has come together in a way that makes us feel confident that us investing is not just good for NATS but is good for Aireon and is good for the other partners so it is a combination of all those factors that just made the timing right. We’ve always known it was a good idea and in fact we have always been very clear that we intend to use the Aireon service in the North Atlantic. The difference here was at what time was it right for us to become an investor.”

Rolfe said Aireon represented a transformational technology that offers the first truly global air traffic control infrastructure.

“Investing in Aireon is the best way for us to shape the future of the service in a way that benefits our customers in the UK and elsewhere, and to demonstrate NATS’ commitment to playing a leading role in the development of the next generation of global air traffic technology.”

He said NATS was currently consulting with its airline customers about how to best deploy this technology. “The North Atlantic is the busiest area of oceanic airspace in the world and the gateway to Europe,” he added, “but its routes have now reached their limit of capacity with existing technology, so we are delighted to now have a way to safely fulfil the ever growing demand from our customers.”

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