BRUSSELS, Jan 22 (AFP)
Commercial airliners over Europe will be able to fly as little as 1,000 feet (305 meters) above or below each other, under changes to air traffic rules that go into effect Thursday.
Eurocontrol said the reduction in what pilots and air traffic controllers call "vertical separation" could permit 20 percent more airliners to operate in European skies at any one time, while "significantly" reducing delays.
"This is the biggest change in European airspace in the past 50 years," said the Brussels-based agency that brings together 41 national air traffic authorities.
Minimum vertical separation of aircraft cruising above 29,000 feet (8,840 meters) has been 2,000 feet, but Eurocontrol said technical breakthroughs now permit planes to fly closer in safety.
For airlines, the new rules -- being introduced at a time of year when demand for air travel is at its lowest -- are expected to save 3.9 billion euros (3.5 billion dollars) through fuel savings and reduced delays.
Operational planning for the next big step in air navigation -- letting airliners fly straight to their destinations, rather than sticking to established air lanes -- will start in 2005, a Eurocontrol spokesman said.