Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the British Air Transport Association (NATS 06)

NATIONAL AIR TRAFFIC SERVICES (NATS) including developments at both Swanwick and Prestwick and the Failure of Systems at West Drayton


  1.1  The British Air Transport Association (BATA) represents the vast majority of UK airlines covering the scheduled, charter and cargo sectors of the industry. Our members (see appendix 1) produce over 95 per cent of the UK airline output.

  1.2  We welcome this opportunity to inform the Transport Sub-committee of our views on NATS, in particular with relation to the latest developments on the Swanwick New En-Route Centre (NERC), the New Scottish Centre (NSC) and the recent failure of systems at West Drayton.


  2.1  Our members have a high regard for the professionalism of NATS' controllers. However, there is evidence of poor management, particularly of major projects, resulting in high costs and inadequate new infrastructure investment.

  2.2  For many years both NATS and the airlines have recognised the need to introduce changes to enable NATS to manage growth and to improve the resilience of the service. The introduction of these changes, particularly the management of major projects, has not gone smoothly and it is these "management" areas of NATS which most concern the airlines.

  2.3  We believe that NATS requires an injection of management skills together with certainty of continuing investment funds, and that this can be achieved in an effective and timely way through the planned PPP process. Any failure to proceed with the PPP, for whatever reason, is likely to result in further delays to change, and consequent increased likelihood that disruptive failures, such as the one on 17 June, will recur.


  3.1  This new facility is now due to be operational in early 2002—six years later than the original target. The delay has been caused by problems in implementing new computer systems and we understand that the systems changes now being implemented are more modest than those in the original plan. The systems to be used during the early years at NERC will still depend on the core Flight Data Processing System (FDPS) which has been used by NATS for over 20 years but which failed on 17 June this year.

  3.2  We believe that there must be both systems development and project management lessons that can be drawn from the NERC project. Although we have been assured by NATS that lessons have been learnt we have seen no list of changes resulting from the experience.


  The idea of a two-centre strategy for NATS had been discussed with the airlines for a number of years before the NSC decision was announced. Airlines are in general agreement with the two centres strategy but have not had a chance to review the plan in detail and have concerns over what look like very high project costs. NSC provides an opportunity to improve resilience in the medium/long term.

5.  17 JUNE 2000

  5.1  The failure of the NATS National Airspace System (NAS) computer software on the morning of 17 June and the eventual recovery of NATS capability several hours later had a disastrous impact on UK civil aviation.

  5.2  Many scheduled airlines were forced to make wholesale cancellations and the charter airlines, who can't cancel, were still suffering long delays 48 hours later as they tried to recover. Airline passengers were stranded for many hours at airports or in aircraft on the ground at various unplanned locations. Airports became gridlocked as they ran out of space to park aircraft. Terminal buildings very rapidly reached capacity limits adding further confusion to an already difficult situation. Airlines struggled to keep passengers informed of the latest position while desperately seeking creative solutions to the loss of ATC service. But NATS could not predict recovery with any confidence and communications were poor. Although NATS fallback was a manual process, as far as we know no contingency plan was put into effect. When systems capability was finally restored there was no prepared recovery plan and so operations were returned to normal using the best operational decisions available on the day.

  5.3  The fallback to manual processes in NATS, providing a theoretical 25 per cent to 50 per cent capacity, proved totally inadequate in practice. The cost to BATA members on 17 June and the days following was in excess of £8 million. The cost to the UK's reputation in civil aviation was also significant, though difficult to quantify.

  5.4  The events of 17 June 2000 proved, once and for all, the criticality of NATS to UK civil aviation and vital need for robust contingency plans within NATS and jointly across the industry. It also proved the importance of effective, efficient and reliable computer systems to the delivery of NATS services.

  5.5  However, the lessons of 17 June were not just about NATS computer systems. They were also about the need for a comprehensive approach to business continuity in a vital part of the aviation infrastructure. The next unexpected event may not—probably will not—be similar to that which occurred on 17 June.


  6.1  The success of NATS projects both current (NERC) and increasingly in the future will depend on implementation of new or upgraded computer systems. The systems (both hardware and software) at NERC are to be upgraded around 2006 and the NSC project also includes a large systems element.

  6.2  The new systems to be introduced in both projects will still be based on the core FDPS which is a bespoke system developed in-house many years ago and not due to be replaced for several years. The events of 17 June must put in some doubt NATS ability to continue developing system enhancements to this platform whilst maintaining a robust operation. BATA believe NATS should urgently review its investment plans in this area.

  6.3  NATS approach to systems development has historically been based on in-house development including significant basic Research and Development. The major projects using this approach have historically run well over budget for both cost and time.

  6.4  This combination of a high dependency on in-house development with a very poor record of implementation and a continuing dependency on a very old core system provides airlines little reassurance that NATS record on project implementation will be any better in future or that the risks of another major systems failure will be any lower, without significant change in NATS' strategy.


  7.1  NATS published their 10-year Service and Investment Plan (SIP) in April 2000. The plan covers the several phases of a move to two centres including the move of Area Control to Swanwick in 2002, subsequent upgrade of systems in 2006 and further activity transfers culminating in the move of Terminal Control to Swanwick in 2009-10.

  7.2  In BATA's view the plan is dependent on significant in-house systems development as described in 6 above and is punctuated with a large number of physical moves and systems changes. The plan, in particular the systems development element, is described by NATS as having "moderate or high" risk. The SIP does not adequately address the potential business continuity risks of the plan overall and there are no identified costs associated with service resilience other than the obvious medium term potential of the two-centre strategy.

  7.3  In May 2000 NATS started a process of consultation with the airlines and airports on the SIP. Our objectives at the start of this process were:

    (i)  to understand the various elements of the plan, in particular what benefits were delivered over time and at what cost.

    (ii)  to explore with NATS the possible alternative options that could deliver change in a more timely and cost-effective way.

    (iii)  following our experience with Swanwick, to seek opportunities to reduce project risk and hence increase our confidence in the planned delivery and improved levels of service.

  7.4  The consultation process has yet to provide the airlines with the level of understanding and involvement we are seeking. Although NATS has recently improved its poor consultative procedures with customers, BATA believes that there is room for significant improvement.


  8.1  As described in section 5 above, the events of 17 June have identified the need for urgent action on Business Continuity firstly within NATS and then coordinated across the industry. We feel that the impact of such an unforeseen event was so significant as to make this issue a priority for NATS.

  8.2  Many large businesses (including airlines) are forced by their dependence on key systems and buildings to assess the impact and likelihood of unpredictable events and put in place resilience for key systems and infrastructure and a comprehensive contingency plan that can be instantly activated under any emergency situation. For example the charter airlines already have such contingency plans in place allowing delayed passengers to be coached away from airports when long delays are experienced.

  8.3  The critical nature of NATS to civil aviation in the UK, and therefore to the UK economy as a whole, makes this responsibility even more important. Unfortunately a failure at NATS does not result in significant financial loss to NATS, only airlines and airlines' customers suffer the impact. We think this situation is both unfair to airlines and their customers and deprives NATS of the proper financial incentive to develop resilience and contingency plans.

  8.4  Nevertheless, we can report that, following a series of meetings with CAA and NATS, BATA and its member airlines will be working closely with NATS on the development of appropriate business continuity plans.

  8.5  We will be seeking significant progress on this issue before the end of this year and would expect to see fully developed and rehearsed plans in place well before the operational opening of NERC.

9.  PPP

  We recognise that there is a continuing political debate about the NATS PPP but strongly believe that the PPP is an opportunity that must not be lost. The status quo is clearly not acceptable, as the problems of 17 June, the lack of business continuity plans and the delays to the NERC have shown. The UK airline industry cannot continue to operate under the cloud of poor ATC investment decisions which have resulted in increasing delays. A radically different approach is needed which will guarantee that the UK has a high quality ATC system, at reasonable cost, as other countries already enjoy. At present the PPP is the only realistic approach available to meet this objective.

Roger Wiltshire

6 October 2000

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