New UK Airspace Infringements Policy

 

For as many decades as anyone can remember, if you did a minor CAS (controlled airspace) infringement you got called up by ATC and were told to turn left/right/descend to get out of there. Occassionally you got a telling-off. Or, if not talking to the CAS owner ATC unit at the time, you were asked post-landing to phone them afterwards for a "conversation" but this was invariably polite and the intention was to make it a learning experience.

Serious and "provocative" infringements - those which shut down an airport, disrupt an airshow, badly breach a politically sensitive restricted area, for example - were treated more heavily, with CAA-imposed "retraining" and a new checkride, or a fine, or in rare cases (and especially where the pilot didn't show the correct attitude at the CAA interview) a court prosecution. In the GPS age, these big ones have thankfully been very rare.

That is still how it is done in mainland Europe, and probably the rest of the world. This is reasonable, since nearly all infringements are brief (seconds to minutes), are the result of brief distractions, and do not constitute a hazard to traffic inside CAS. Some countries have very large possible fines - e.g. 50,000 euros in Germany - but they are not used for infringements.

The infringement numbers in the UK are small relative to much of Europe. The current data is published here and compares well with around 4000 infringements reported annually for just the Prague TMA.

 

In the UK, however, sometime in 2017/2018, the UK CAA policy on airspace infringements was dramatically tightened up. They appear to be aiming for a zero infringements level and have established a 100% strict reporting system and a 100% strict "pilot processing system". They have also overhauled the reporting of infringements in scenarios which were previously largely disregarded; ATZs (whether ATC staffed or not) are the most fertile new area now. When an ATZ is infringed, the report normally initially comes from somebody in the vicinity; possibly an instructor in an airborne aircraft. Most ATZs don't have a radar and a nearby radar unit is contacted for their radar data so the infringer can be busted. DAs (danger areas) are also watched carefully nowadays. Basically you have to assume everything printed on the chart is watched, with a zero tolerance.

Most of the larger ATC units have software called CAIT which monitors the radar data and flags up infringers in a different colour. The details of its operation are confidential but pretty obviously it compares the transponder codes with the range which is possible for that airspace. In the UK, each CAS owner issues a different squawk for entry into their CAS. You are almost never cleared to enter CAS without a special code being assigned beforehand. And if the CAS goes all the way to the surface (CTR, CTA, etc) then non-transponding aircraft are obvious.

Around 2017 the CAA started an "online tutorial and exam" which was evidently used for most or all "first time offenders". This was based on an ancient question bank and contained many bogus questions. Some questions were on a specific notation on VFR charts last published some 20 years ago... Also, the expectation which the tutorial created was that the subsequent exam would be on the content of the tutorial (which, obviously, everybody read really carefully) but it was almost wholly unrelated. One discussion is here showing the main issues. The exam, with just 20 questions and 45 seconds per question, was probably set up by an ex military person, to be maximally stressful, and the CAA-published numbers showed that most did in fact fail it. I did this exam (following a very minor infringement) in 2017 and of course failed it. Those who failed it had to go to a flying school for a "talk" with an instructor (other options were re-sitting the exam or "re-education" at the CAA, which nobody with a brain would have chosen, obviously ). When - after extreme difficulties over some weeks - I managed to contact the man at the CAA who runs this whole new scheme, asking if he would credit the dodgy questions - this option is available on the EASA IR etc exams - he bluntly told me that if I got all the good questions right I would have still got a pass mark!

The above online exam is rarely used now, presumably because it has been discredited by the high failure rate. The CAA never admitted there were bogus questions in it.

Around 2018 the CAA people running this went looking for a tougher route and contracted with an "aviation charity" called Gasco to run an Airspace Infringement Awareness Course (AIAC). Gasco have for many years been running rather pompous "safety evenings", notable for the hissing from the audience of the faithfuls when the dreaded word G-P-S was uttered by some infidel This course is run once a month at various locations around the UK. The Gasco charge for the course is 200 and according to their published accounts they do rather well out of it. The cost to the pilot is usually considerably greater than the £200 because while the locations are widely spaced geographically, there is only a small number of them. The course terms state that if you arrive late (9:30am start) you are deemed to not have attended and since not attending will directly lead to a license removal and nobody can take a chance on the road traffic, most stay in the hotel where the course is run, or nearby. The total cost is thus anything up to 500. This course is imposed by the CAA with no appeal or any possibility for the pilot to state his case (other than in the reports submitted earlier; see below). In contrast with its smooth sounding overview, part1 part2, the course has little value to a pilot with any experience (it is largely a rapidly delivered one-way lecture) which is ironic given that most people who end up on it got there because they were flying with Mode S. There are a lot of high-hour pilots, bizjet pilots, and some instructors and examiners. I did Gasco in 2019 - my course notes. This completely false flyer from Gasco gives you the flavour of their understanding of the issues...

The CAA people who set up this scheme produced a document called CAP1404 which details the process. This is ambiguous in places. For example, it does not state the time period after which an infringement is regarded as "spent" but after several FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) applications this was discovered as two years. Recent evidence confirms that the 2 years is timed from the date of the CAA committee decision i.e. from the date of "conviction".

CAP1404 also states that the first step is a warning letter, the next step is Gasco, and the next step is a license suspension. This represents a sharp escalation. It can be achieved by a pilot infringing in Jan 2020, again in Jan 2022, and again in Jan 2024. These infringements can be the most minor ones possible, and are very hard to avoid if flying VFR OCAS in UK airspace - unless one adopts an extremely conservative approach which often produces routings 1.5 to 2x longer.

The aviation laws which give the CAA the power to suspend licenses are referenced here. There is a legal argument that the above UK legislation contravenes EU laws on the license suspension process (and these laws will be incorporated into UK law on Brexit date, supposedly) but nobody has yet tried this angle. It is also high risk because - see CAP1404 - as soon as court proceedings are on the horizon, the timescales can be extended, and you will already be suspended.

The CAA disregards the 200ft permitted altimeter error. If they see your Mode C return to be 100ft inside CAS, even for seconds, you will be busted for it, and there are known cases. This also should not stand up in a court case but nobody has yet had the courage to try it. The CAA stats show that gross altimeter errors did lead to people being let off, subject to the error having been validated by a "licensed engineer".

 

The current process following an infringement starts with the CAS owner (generally NATS) writing to the pilot and asking him to complete a report, containing his version of what happened:

The subject of infringements of controlled airspace is a major concern to NATS who view the matter as a significant safety issue. It is NATS current preference to work with pilots who have been responsible for an infringement of controlled airspace so that the reasons behind the infringement can be identified. We would therefore be grateful if you could please provide some feedback regarding the actions that led to this infringement by completing the infringement questionnaire which can be found online at https://www.nats.aero/infringements
Information we collect from these forms will be collated and analysed statistically by NATS for the identification of common factors and trends. NATS will also share the form with the UK Civil Aviation Authority under the principles of the MOR scheme as detailed in CAP382.

Reading the above, most pilots would think this is a data collection process for improving safety. It isn't... you are being asked to submit a report which goes to the CAA. Then the CAA writes to you, pointing to a web page containing this:

The purpose of occurrence reporting is to improve aviation safety by ensuring that relevant safety information relating to civil aviation is reported, collected, stored, protected, exchanged, disseminated and analysed. It is not to attribute blame or liability. This delivers a European Just Culture Declaration.

Again, most pilots would think something similar to the above. So they duly fill in a report which is practically identical to the previous one. In doing so they self incriminate. In a proper criminal system the accused is supposed to be told that anything they say can be used against them. The correct UK wording (used by the police) is:

“You do not have to say anything. But, it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.”

And, sure enough, some weeks later you get the judgement:

The CAA Infringement Coordination Group have reviewed both the MOR and your report and have agreed that the remedial action required in this instance is your attendance at an Airspace Infringement Awareness Course (please see letter attached). The course is run every month by GASCo and I have listed the course dates and venues to assist you choose which is most suitable for you.
Booking is to be made at the following web site: https://gasco.w4x4.com

There is no appeal.

This may not sound a harsh sentence (less than £500 usually and 1 or 2 days off work) and almost all pilots just get on with it, grateful it was not any worse. But the real gotcha is that if you do another infringement within 2 years your license is likely to be suspended! This is tough if you fly a lot, with a transponder.

From some past cases where the pilot went public with the details, it appears that if you write a large amount of highly self critical text in the two reports, you have a much better chance of getting just a warning letter - as a first offender.

 

Following an infringement which you are aware of but you were not talking to ATC at the time, there is no point in apologising to ATC. They should have already reported it internally and shortly will be passing that (mandatory, via the MOR system) to the CAA. After my 2019 infringement (reported later by NATS to be 1 minute 35 seconds) I phoned the ATC unit to apologise and they said they had no record of any infringement that day. However my call must have led to an internal investigation and sure enough I soon heard from NATS. Lesson learnt! And quite possibly the ATCO who "failed" to spot it got disciplined - for being decent! If you were talking to ATC and they just told you off, it is again best to lie low, on the small chance that the ATCO is going to take the risk of not reporting it and save himself the hassle of writing a report.

For those who want their "day in court", the only way is to ignore the CAA communications and orders. This forces the CAA to prosecute you. This is a high risk strategy, because - unless you have a GPS track proving otherwise, or wish to argue the permitted 200ft altimeter error, or there is some ATC related excuse - you have infringed, after all. Also, per CAP1404, there are then no real timescale constraints on the CAA, and because they will suspend your license immediately upon your decision to not co-operate, you could be grounded for a long time. In one case I know about the pilot waited 6 months for the court hearing, and that was despite spending 5 figures on a top lawyer during his suspension! The CAA has always operated a scheme whereby they tell you that if you lose they will apply for costs which are perhaps 5x greater than if you plead Guilty, and since the numbers are at least 4 digits, most pilots cave in.

A factor in many infringements is the interaction between the pilot and ATC, and how long things can take. The typical scenario is a departure from an airport which is outside CAS and the pilot calls up ATC for a clearance, and while he is waiting, perhaps changing course or orbiting, he infringes. Obviously this is the pilot's fault because he is supposed to orbit, stay low, etc, but this is often impractical especially in a fast aircraft like a turboprop or a jet. In the UK, it is generally impossible to obtain a CAS clearance before departure if the airport is OCAS (there are a few exceptions only). You have to get it on the radio and somehow remain OCAS while doing it. If you need a clearance enroute (to e.g. cross a piece of CAS) then you need a Plan B and be prepared to execute it very sharply, and many infringements happen when ATC is slow in issuing the magic words "cleared to...". I've had many cases where this was issued so late that a Rate 1 turn would cause one to infringe... Accordingly, ATC is never formally implicated.

Following more FOIA applications, the CAA eventually started publishing the statistics for this process.

These are revealing. The indications from this and elsewhere are that the procedure which the CAA is using is

Due to the finite capacity of the Gasco "course", around 20-25/month, there is the expected seasonal variation in the percentage of pilots which get sent there. In the winter, when GA activity is much lower, the number of infringements is also lower, and they can pack the majority of infringements - particularly CAS infringements - to Gasco. In the summer, it looks like a first time offender gets a warning letter roughly 80% of the time. Unsurprisingly, on the Gasco session I did in June (reflecting offences committed a few months before) most people there got Gasco on their first offence.

As mentioned above, new categories of infringements are being followed up, with ATZs being among the most fertile areas as well as the most controversial. The Barton EGCB airfield has become well known for filing MORs in large numbers - discussion here. Most pilots do contact the tower long before reaching the ATZ but there are scenarios where this doesn't happen (non radio aircraft being the most obvious) or doesn't happen in what is the very latest CAA prescribed form. Enroute this is a problem because with many ATZ tops (2000ft AAL) being really close to the 2500ft AMSL base of much UK Class A, you have little margin for error.

Danger areas (DAs) are also being followed up vigorously, and there's a lot of those around. Each DA potentially has a different regulation - called a "byelaw" - attached to it. But not all DAs have a byelaw. And not all DAs are an offence to fly through. Furthermore, many DAs created by bye-laws are shown on CAA charts as being far more expansive than required by the bye-laws...

An additional UK-specific factor is that once you have infringed CAS, and if not talking to the ATC unit that owns the CAS, they add 5000ft/5nm (these values are disputed by some, and some ATC units may be working with 3000ft, but they are the current numbers in CAA/NATS publications, and the actual values for a given airport are in MATS Part 2 which is confidential) to your position and if there is an airliner within this huge artificially-created volume, it is regarded as a Loss of Separation. This results in the ATCO being taken off duty for some hours, to write reports. This of course dramatically inflates the seriousness of any event. Note that in the UK you are usually not talking to the ATC unit that owns the CAS because most of them don't provide a service to OCAS traffic. If one looks (e.g. on FR24) at the typical altitudes at which airliners are to be found in the "usual places" in the UK, you will find that they are usually several thousand feet above where GA is found - even when infringing - but if you add 5000ft to an infringer this situation changes dramatically because e.g. 2600ft suddenly becomes 7600ft and at 5000-8000ft the (e.g.) Gatwick CTR is full of traffic. So the UK has made a big rod for its own back, but one which delivers lots of losses of separation.

A key aspect of the UK system is that talking to ATC, and even talking to a radar unit which is providing you with a radar service (called Traffic Service, or the rarely used Deconfliction Service, in the UK), does not get you off the hook for an infringement. If you are talking to a radar controller and your altitude has been verified, the 5000ft add-on mentioned above does not need to be applied (I believe it is then just 1000ft) so the chance of an official "loss of separation" is much smaller. But you will still get MORd... It is possible that being in contact (or flying under a listening watch, with the appropriate transponder code) could make the difference between getting a warning letter and getting sent straight to Gasco, and it would make sense, but I have not seen any evidence of it under the new CAA policy. I have been flying in the south east under a listening watch with Gatwick and, despite being an IFR pilot for 15 years and used to flying in rapid-fire radio conditions, I think most GA pilots will not be doing this because the constant radio talk is distracting. It is almost totally nonstop so you cannot talk to passengers.

There is a strong ex Royal Air Force, particularly ex RAF ATC, element in the CAA and Gasco personnel involved in this new scheme. The modern RAF has in the meantime moved to a Just Culture process - described here - which is a world apart from what the CAA is now running and which CAP1404 claims to be following. It is astonishing how CAP1404 can use the words Just Culture at all, for a process which is wholly centred on punishing pilots, with no effort put into education.

The CAA has confirmed that an infringement is a criminal offence. There has been a recent proposal (from the new Minister for Transport, Grant Shapps) to de-criminalise infringements which would be a welcome move if it also changes the CAA process described here.

In a controversial policy, the CAA department running this new scheme has been putting pressure on social media mods/admins to avoid discussing this topic. Nowadays, only EuroGA is running it, here, in what has become by far the longest thread we've had. I am one of the admins and - along with others I know - have received very direct "invitations" for a talk at Gatwick. All those I know who received these, except one who runs a UK forum, have refused to go. It's a bit like Vlad the Impaler asking you to drop in for a cup of tea And with two past infringements (both very minor) there is no doubt they will go after me to the maximum extent possible if I do it again within the two years. The NATS, CAA and Gasco staff are prominent on the UK flying forums and are readily recognisable, primarily from a high-handed lecturing style on regulatory matters coupled with an unusual lack of interest in anything connected with actually flying aeroplanes. Similarly, with access to the CAA pilot database, it must be reasonably assumed that they are readily able to identify most of the forum participants... It is hard to write more than a few lines on a forum without revealing something about where you are based, what you fly, etc.

All this makes flying around the UK, particularly the southern parts, pretty risky to one's license, and requires a very careful watch kept on the GPS - not ideal when you are also looking out for traffic. Accordingly, I have almost stopped flying in the UK, apart from simple local flights. Flying under any 2500ft base CAS, or (with rare exceptions) under 3500ft base CAS, is over. Any A-to-B flights which I now do are entirely on autopilot, fully programmed with the route, and with the entire flight at a single altitude. If I can get a CAS transit that's fine for a shortcut but the autopilot is set up to fly the whole route without that. I have also stopped sightseeing flights with passengers; these are by far the biggest candidates for momentary infringements. Similarly I no longer do the mentoring I used to do. Long trips e.g. to Scotland I would do only under IFR (which needs the full IR; the UK IMC Rating is no good for this because most airspace is Class A). The main attraction now is flying abroad which I have always done and which is like a breath of fresh air. My total hours are at least 1/3 down.

On all flights in UK airspace except local ones I record the audio and keep the mp3 files for at least a year. The GPS track is also recorded anyway on the tablet on which I run the GPS moving map. This is important since if there is a dispute regarding what was said, the pilot gets no access to the ATC tapes. Only the CAA can get them... unless you opt for the high risk court route. I advise anyone flying in the UK to get an mp3 sound recorder and have it plugged into the aircraft intercom. I use this circuit. It is dead easy to do and these recorders come up on Amazon for very little. I use a TASCAM DR-05 which is good for flying movie audio but is an overkill for this purpose. An even simpler way is a recorder with a small mike which is tucked under the headset. Listening to some pilot-ATC radio exchanges in the UK, where a pilot made a specific and unusual request for a confirmation of something, suggests quite a lot of pilots are recording stuff for their own protection. I must admit that if I was flying at say 1800ft under the 2000ft CAS base around Solent (who have MORd some amazingly marginal infringements) I would ask ATC to confirm my transponder return, just for the recording. Note that recording ATC is probably illegal in the UK so you never read this here Actually there is an interesting legal argument around the "illegality" which probably explains why there are no known actions under the Act.

No doubt ATC - those actually working, rather than those at the top - don't like this very much either. UK ATCOs are really professional and nearly all of them are really decent people who support GA. Privately, they have stated on various occassions that they hate writing the MOR reports. It has also been reported that NATS have made it a disciplinary offence for an ATCO to not report an infringement; this is denied by some on UK social media, but the regulation supporting this does exist within ATC. They are now noticeably much more proactive on warning pilots flying in the vicinity of CAS, although I have not noticed any improvement in the likelihood of getting a transit.

Pilot reports indicate that the CAA often does not let you know if they have decided to take no action. They just leave you hanging... after maybe a year you can probably assume they dropped it. This is outrageous and arrogant.

I predict a gradual rise in pilots flying with transponders turned off (which is not legal) or removing them / leaving them defective / leaving the altitude encoder defective (which is legal). This of course represents a big reduction in safety all around.

What happens to foreign pilots is not known. Reports from known infringers who live abroad indicate that the MOR is filed. Based on my own knowledge of a case from many years ago, the CAA is highly likely to write to the CAA of the pilot's home country and ask them to take action against the pilot. ICAO framework supports this procedure. What the other CAA will do depends on what they think of the UK CAA's evidence... In a reversed version of this, I know the UK CAA has in the past, many years ago, summarily dismissed a similar action from the French DGAC (where the circumstances were clearly a despicable conduct by both the DGAC and the ATC involved) so anything can happen. An FOIA application would reveal the general policy, which is as the aforementioned. They would not discuss individual cases.

What happens to UK based N-reg pilots - a huge community which includes most of UK's high-hour going-places pilots - is of particular interest to many. There are two posts here and here which are from a known senior CAA (and formerly NATS) official and which suggest the CAA could get the FAA to summarily remove your FAA certificates (licenses/ratings). I have tried to check this out via the legal department of AOPA USA (of which I am a member) but they were not interested in looking into it. Additionally, ICAO allows each Contracting State to prevent its nationals (effectively, passport holders) exercising the privileges of foreign licenses, in its airspace; this attack appears to be rarely invoked. From the foregoing links and actual experience (I am N-reg too) it appears that their preferred route is to treat the pilot as if he was a UK resident G-reg i.e. simply get him to accept Gasco etc. This may involve contacting the FAA asking for their permission to deal with the pilot locally; I have no idea if the CAA actually does that. And I have not seen any procedures in suspension cases. If any data ever comes out on a UK based N-reg pilot who got suspended, it will be interesting to see what exactly the CAA did. I hope I am not the one to make that report

 

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This page last edited 4th February 2020

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