Memorandum by the Institution of Professionals,
Managers and Specialists (IPMS) (NATS 07)
NATIONAL AIR TRAFFIC SERVICES
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
2. The scale of the task in successfully bringing
the New En-Route Centre into operation should not be underestimated.
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 timescaleit should
not unduly affect NERC's introduction but may add to controller
4. There is some instability with the Training
and Development software that could affect Operational Conversion
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
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.
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
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
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 levelsanother
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
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