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

Memorandum by the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists (IPMS) (NATS 07)



  1.  IPMS represents 3,500 air traffic controllers and engineers in National Air Traffic Services (NATS). We welcome the opportunity to submit our views on:

    —  progress on the New En-Route Centre at Swanwick, Hampshire;

    —  progress on the New Scottish Centre project, and the current position on the replacement of the Oceanic Flight Data Processing System; and

    —  recent computer problems at West Drayton.


2.  The scale of the task in successfully bringing the New En-Route Centre into operation should not be underestimated.

System Confidence

  3.  There appears to be an acceptable degree of confidence in the stability of the Swanwick system. Engineers are reasonably confident that the technical handover will be completed successfully and on time. However the Committee should not underestimate the work that needs to be completed before and after the technical handover. There will be a number of software updates prior to the operational date ("O" date) which, as NATS has identified, carry a degree of risk classed by some as "high". Some of the features of the Swanwick system will not be available at "O" date. This is to enable the system to come into operation within the current defined timescale—it should not unduly affect NERC's introduction but may add to controller workload.

  4.  There is some instability with the Training and Development software that could affect Operational Conversion Training.

Procedures Development

  5.  The development of air traffic control procedures and the "method of operations" (ie the way the system is used by controllers) is almost complete. There is no further simulation time available to continue developing and evaluating best operating procedures, eg for opening and closing sectors.

Controller Availability

  6.  It is estimated that Swanwick will not have the number of Air Traffic Control Officers (ATCOs) it needs to be fully operational on the "O" date. As a result, the number of sectors available at the start of operations is likely to be reduced, with a consequent reduction in overall capacity.

Controller Shortages

  7.  All large units (ie those with over 30 ATCOs) are experiencing a shortage of up to 20 per cent of their operational requirement. This does not take into account resources for simulations and other requirements such as developmental groups and technical committees. In Terminal Control for the London Area and Terminal Control Centre (LATCC), where a new upper sector ("TC Capital") is to be introduced, peak ATCO shortfall could reach 40 per cent. This is at a time when Terminal Control and the Scottish and Manchester Area Control Centres will be called on to alleviate some of the Area Control capacity shortfall during training and introduction for Swanwick.

Operational Conversion Training

  8.  This will be a considerable task, with controllers from LATCC Area Control being trained on a new and very different system. The plan is very tight, causing restrictions on leave and other difficulties including the ability to resource non-operational areas such as training. We are concerned that there may not be enough training on the practical application of the Swanwick system. This may have an impact on controller acceptance of the new system.

Relocation and other Staff Issues

  9.  The transfer to Swanwick will require staff to relocate with their families, or to endure extended commuting. Such changes will inevitably add to the difficulties and strain for staff as they start training. At the same time, controllers will have to retain operational competence on the current LATCC Area Control systems during the 24 Swanwick training simulations and associated refreshers.

Continued Service Provision

  10.  This will be one of the most difficult issues for all NATS operational areas, as service delivery will be affected. Large numbers of controllers will be taken out of the LATCC AC Operations Room for Operational Conversion Training during 2001. This will require sector closure and flow control. NATS has yet to clarify the extent of flow control and consequent delays, but there will inevitably be pressure on all areas to minimise any delay and consequently relax flow control.

Role of the Safety Regulation Group (SRG)

  11.  NATS is under immense political and industrial pressure to develop and implement the operating procedures needed to bring Swanwick into operation. Regulators themselves are never completely immune from such pressures. We recognise the current demanding circumstances, but believe that safety should be the overriding priority.


  12.  We welcomed the abandonment of the Private Finance Initiative for the New Scottish Centre, but are concerned about continued progress. Though there has been initial start-up funding for systems/building design and some site work, there is no guaranteed funding to complete the centre.

  13.  The New Scottish Centre is the essential second element of the UK ATC infrastructure plan for accommodating future traffic growth and maximising the use and efficiency of Swanwick. The NSC software will in substance be common with the software for NERC. This complex software will have undergone considerable development by the time NSC is introduced and will have been in stable operation at NERC for some time. However, we stress that any further slippage on an already much delayed project would be wholly regrettable and unnecessary, and we hope the Committee will press for urgent progress.


  14.  We are disappointed by the apparent failure of the private sector to provide the replacement Oceanic Flight Data Processing System (FDPS2) as contracted. We do not believe the Private Finance Initiative was an appropriate route for financing or running this vital and integral part of the UK ATC service.

  15.  However, we are confident that NATS has retained the expertise to enhance the current system to accommodate traffic growth into the foreseeable future and in the longer term to develop new systems.


  16.  The National Airspace System (NAS) and its associated components are at the heart of the information systems that are essential tools for all air traffic controllers, eg data strip printing, code/callsign conversion on radar screens.

  17.  Any failure of these systems has an impact on the safe provision of air traffic services. Failure of NAS and associated systems is unusual, with the large scale failure of 17 June 2000 extremely rare.

  18.  Computer systems, particularly complex information systems such as NAS, are rarely infallible. The unprecedented and relentless rise in the number of aircraft movements in UK airspace, together with the need to develop the system to accommodate Swanwick, has increased the need for frequent and radical software updates. These would test any system, and in this case led to the discovery of a latent fault in the NAS software. It is a tribute to NATS that there have not been more problems over the last few years.

  19.  The system normally reports any problems it encounters in enough time to enable correction or controlled reductions in traffic flow. The 17 June failure proved more difficult and problematic. A combination of rapid flow reduction measures (which inevitably caused delays), training, hard work and a small degree of luck meant there were no incidents. But staff were put under a considerable amount of pressure in coping with the fault.

  20.  The NATS philosophy of continuous learning from incidents in, so far as is possible, a blame free environment will minimise the chance of such an event happening again. At the same time it will lead to the development of better procedures to handle such failures.


  21.  Traffic is again growing at record levels—another 7 per cent for at least the seventh consecutive year. NATS' performance during that period has been remarkable in most aspects of service provision. But staff are feeling the strain of the increased workload. Fatigue is growing and morale needs to be closely monitored.

  22.  We believe there are four factors essential for Swanwick's successful introduction and the continued provision of safe air traffic services: Safety, Service, Standards and Stability.

    —  Safety: NATS puts its safety and service record first, and it is essential that this does not change. Staff and ATC systems will be stretched over the next few years. Every decision which NATS takes, from high level business decisions to everyday operational decisions, will need to give priority to safety.

    —  Service: NATS goal should be to maintain the highest levels of service, with minimum delays, while not compromising on safety.

    —  Standards: these will come under pressure, so it is vital that there is a clear commitment from all involved to maintain and maximise all standards.

    —  Stability: in the face of unprecedented change, stability for systems and staff will be crucial in minimising error. But the government's PPP proposals are a major de-stabilising factor for NATS at a time when it is facing its greatest challenges.

  23.  We are growing increasingly concerned about the demand to reduce costs as we prepare for the Public-Private Partnership. We believe that an RPI-5 per cent reduction has been achieved this year, with a further 5 per cent reduction planned for 2001. In an industry growing as rapidly as UK air traffic control, such cuts in operating costs can only add to pressure on staff, affect investment in systems, and may well have an impact on safety at such a delicate time.


18 October 2000

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