Memorandum submitted by NATS (SAGE 09)
1.1 NATS is the UK's leading provider of
air traffic management services and we are regarded as a world
leader in our industry.
1.2 NATS was established as a PPP in 2001
and is owned 49% by the UK Government, which also maintains a
Special Share; 42% by The Airline Group, a consortium of UK airlines;
5% by its employees, and 4% by BAA.
1.3 NATS comprises two businesses. NATS
(En Route) plc (NERL) is the monopoly provider of en-route air
traffic services in the UK and the north east quadrant of the
North Atlantic, provided under licence from, and regulated by,
the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA); NATS (Services) Ltd (NSL)
is NATS' non-regulated business providing air traffic services
at many UK airports and is NATS' interface with the wider UK and
global ATM markets.
1.4 The terms of NERL's licence from the
CAA require the company to be capable of meeting on a continuous
basis any reasonable level of overall demand. NERL is charged
under its licence with permitting access to airspace on the part
of all users, safely whilst making the most efficient overall
use of airspace.
1.5 In other words, NATS' job is to meet
the air traffic service requirements of airlines and others using
UK airspace, including the Military, and to control traffic safely
and efficiently. NATS does not establish airspace policy, which
is the responsibility of the Directorate of Airspace Policy (DAP)
at the CAA.
1.6 NATS welcomes the Committee's inquiry,
and this opportunity to contribute answers to your questions as
part of your inquiry.
2.1. NATS' submission to the Committee responds
to the questions posed and we would be happy to provide further
explanation should the Committee find that helpful. In summary,
our responses make the following points:
The crisis was treated initially as a
regulatory and ATM safety issue. As the industry and Government
started to gain greater clarity on the risk it became clear that
the risk was an airworthiness issue.
During the crisis the industry and scientific
community faced a dichotomy between science and research wishing
for more evidence over a prolonged period of time and industry
needing immediate and innovative solutions to the issue of safe
ash concentrations in which flights could operate.
UK coordination was generally good but
constrained by the international nature of the industry. Management
of any risk in the aviation industry calls for a pragmatic international
approach given the cross-border nature of our business.
2.2 In addition, we note the Committee's
interest in other potential risks including solar flares. We refer
briefly to the impact of solar flares which may have an impact
on aviation although the risk is still being assessed.
3. ERUPTION OF
3.1 On the afternoon of Wednesday 14 April,
NATS received an ash report from the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre
(VAAC) of the Met Office. NATS operational staff liaised with
the Met Office, airlines and neighbouring ANSPs. It became clear
that this would be an unprecedented and significant event.
3.2 NATS established that the application
of international guidance material as contained in the ICAO Regional
Volcanic Ash contingency plan, was appropriate although it had
the potential to have a widespread and significant effect in UK
3.3 In line with emerging international
consensus, and following consultation with UK national authorities,
NATS issued Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) restricting Instrument
Flight Rules (IFR) clearances in controlled airspace in areas
shown by the VAAC maps to be contaminated. (The Met Office provides
3.4 The effect of the NOTAMs was that no
IFR clearances could be offered in UK controlled airspace. These
actions satisfied NATS' obligation to manage the air traffic network
3.5 Overnight, the VAAC chart update showed
that the hazardous areas would effectively cover the whole of
the UK during the following day.
3.6 On the morning of Thursday 15 April,
following discussion and review with the CAA as the Regulator,
it reinforced NATS' actions by issuing its own NOTAM, also prohibiting
IFR flights in controlled airspace and advising caution with Visual
Flight Rules (VFR) flights.
3.7 From that point, NATS continued to assist
and consult with airport and airline customers and national authorities
to ensure we could restart the national network as safely and
efficiently as possible, as soon as new guidelines were issued
by the CAA. We initiated regular teleconferences with all these
stakeholders, plus Eurocontrol, the VAAC and other European ATM
3.8 The responses from each European State
were inconsistent, some following the international guidance and
others applying different procedures based on their own supplementary
3.9 On Tuesday 20 April the CAA issued guidance
to airlines permitting IFR clearances over the ash, subject to
specific conditions eg flights had to guarantee they were able
to land clear of the ash (refer to CAA for more detail).
3.10 Later that day we had indications from
the national authorities that fresh guidelines were likely to
be issued with respect to flight in contaminated airspace. We
intensified our co-ordination with customers, airports and national
authorities and with European ANSPs to prepare for a co-ordinated,
safe and efficient restart of operations.
3.11 On Friday 23 April at 1,300 local,
the ash contamination moved away completely from UK airspace and
consequently no restrictions were imposed and there has not yet
been a recurrence.
3.12 The eruption caused the largest disruption
to commercial aviation in Europe since the Second World War. As
the en-route service provider in the airspace adjacent to the
disruption, NATS was under intense scrutiny in the way we contributed
to the management of the crisis. We continue to be closely engaged
with the whole industry to develop new policies and safety rationales
to cope with future disruptions.
3.13 Throughout the crisis, NATS was heavily
engaged with airlines, regulators and engine manufacturers, seeking
improved operational procedures to allow flights to operate safely.
4. THE COMMITTEE'S
4.1 What are the potential hazards and risks
and how were they identified? How prepared is/was the Government
for the emergency
4.1.1 As part of our routine risk management
in 2009, NATS ensured that communications with the UK Met Office
and the Regional Volcanic Ash Communication Cell (VACC) were fit
for purpose. In addition our units were aware of the risk.
4.1.2 Whilst the ICAO contingency plan was
developed with most stakeholders it was not explicit in identifying
where the risk lies and who should therefore manage mitigation
of the risk. ICAO documentation concentrated on ensuring that
information on contamination flowed to the operator in the most
expeditious means possible.
4.1.3 We believe that in balancing risk
against probability, the industry had looked at the history of
aviation encounters with ash and taken the view that the probability
of disruption from Eyjafjalla erupting was very low level. This
may help explain why there had not been a significant investment
by operators or manufacturers to develop the policy with reference
to volcanic eruptions beyond the generic "do not fly in visible
4.1.4 The crisis was managed initially as
a regulatory and ATM safety issue. As the industry and government
gained greater clarity on the risk it became clear that the risk
was an airworthiness issue. The owner of the risk should be the
aircraft operator community and it is for them to seek mitigation
with their manufacturers and to present their safety rationale
to the appropriate regulator The ATM role is then to handle permitted
4.1.5 We believe that any risk would benefit
from analysis outside the pressures of crisis. The owner of the
risk should be unambiguously identified and then empowered to
manage the development of mitigation. In many respects the management
of Swine Flu seems to have identified the Department of Health
as the risk owner and then the population was clear about who
owned the problem and was accountable for the procurement of solutions.
4.1.6 Turning to the solar flare risk, we
would be keen for the Committee to ensure that the owner of any
solar flare risk on Aviation is clearly identified now so that
the risk can be clarified and appropriate risk based mitigations
4.2 How does/did the Government use scientific
advice and evidence to identify, prepare for and react to an emergency?
NATS has no information to aid the Committee
on this question.
4.3 What are the obstacles to obtaining reliable,
timely scientific advice and evidence to inform policy decisions
in emergencies? Has the government sufficient powers and resources
to overcome the obstacles? Was there sufficient and timely scientific
evidence to inform policy decisions?
4.3.1 It seems little more than luck that
the UK had not experienced such levels of aviation disruption
before, given that an Icelandic volcano erupts every five to seven
years on average.
4.3.2 During the ash crisis it became apparent
that whilst the existing dispersion model operated by the UK Met
Office was competent, the quality and fidelity of the output was
dependant on the accuracy of the inputs to the model. For this
event the type of ejection being produced was critical to modelling
accurately the dispersal of the ash cloud. It is clear that data
of sufficient granularity was lacking although we understand that
accurately establishing the density and composition of the ash
is the most difficult scientific challenge.
4.3.3 There was a continuing need during
the crisis for sampling of the atmospherics to validate the model
particularly around critical margins, for instance where a contamination
line transits an airport or vital piece of airspace.
4.3.4 NATS supports the review of atmospheric
sampling and monitoring in order to improve the accuracy of ash
maps; we believe the costs of doing this would be heavily outweighed
by the financial impact on the industry of unnecessary disruption.
The Committee may wish to consider the costs and benefits of a
standing monitoring capability either at a UK or European level
and how that might be financed.
4.3.5 During the crisis the industry and
scientific community faced a dichotomy between science and research
wishing for more evidence over a prolonged period of time and
industry needing immediate and innovative solutions to how safe
the ash concentrations were to fly in. Over time the scientific
community became more engaged in providing real time advice rather
than the traditional preference to gather data for further future
4.3.6 Engine manufacturer advice wasand
still isgeneric with little momentum for it to be detailed
and risk based, though this incident has escalated awareness of
the need for a tailored solution for operators.
4.3.7 Different engines may have different
tolerances, operators may have different risk appetite and route
structure and particular operations may have different exposure
times. The Eyjafjalla eruption graphically demonstrated that operators
cannot tolerate a "one size fits all" approach to regulation
of risk management of this type.
4.3.8 Operators can influence their manufacturers
and suppliers to provide appropriate mitigations and tolerances
for them to fly and to satisfy any conditions from the appropriate
safety regulator. The cost of mitigation would therefore benefit
from a cost benefit analysis by the part of the industry that
owns the risk and would have to fund mitigation.
4.4 How effective is the strategic coordination
between Government departments, public bodies, private bodies,
sources of scientific advice and the research base in preparing
for and reacting to emergencies?
4.4.1 Coordination was executed through
the National Airspace Crisis Management Executive which is chaired
by the CAA with participation of DfT, NATS and MoD. This group
had been developed over the previous 18 months to two years under
the banner of Joint and Integrated ATM in the UK. It was formed
to manage crises in airspace, for instance the airspace implications
of a major interruption to Air Traffic Control. The DfT then acted
as a conduit to the wider Government community.
4.4.2 Whilst we were fortunate to have the
body, this group had difficulty at times influencing the necessary
scientific and international regulatory response. This crisis
demonstrated that the UK cannot determine such policy in isolation
as aviation is global and inconsistencies in regulatory application
inevitably cause confusion to the public and imbalances in the
route network. The reaction to a crisis in aviation immediately
impacts on the wider international network, private organisations
will become frustrated by inconsistencies and thus feed public
dissatisfaction with the response.
4.4.3 Prior to the crisis the role of the
scientific community, principally through the UK Met Office and
VACC, was to identify the areas of contamination and to ensure
that airspace users were aware of the areas through regular notices
and updates. This crisis has broadened the demand on these experts
to place greater emphasis on forecasting and dispersion models.
In addition manufacturers have had to develop their policy beyond
the simple "do not fly in visible ash" to include advice
on tolerance to ranges of contamination.
4.4.4 In short, the UK coordination was
good but constrained by the international nature of the industry.
4.5 How important is international coordination
and how could it be strengthened?
4.5.1 We believe that the high level owner
of any risk should manage the development of any mitigation with
other stakeholders, whether they are regulatory or service provision
bodies. The role of the regulator is to listen to the industry
and the risk owners and to understand, and if necessary approve,
the mitigation proposed.
4.5.2 Management of any risk in the aviation
industry calls for a pragmatic international approach given the
international nature of our business.
4.5.3 In the specific case of volcanoes
it is vital to achieve consistent international airworthiness
criteria for flight in ash clouds. To do otherwise will result
in airspace complexity where operators fly in accordance with
an inconsistent regulatory approach creating inequality across
frontiers and greater stresses on regional transport infrastructures.
4.5.4 The ash crisis became deeply political
at a European level. We believe the UK response was proportionate,
but there was an issue with some of the operational decisions
made in other parts of Europe.
4.5.5 We believe that the industry would
benefit from stronger central direction/regulation in Europe which
is geared to practical well prepared solutions rather than political
expedience. In Europe, this is the role of the European Commission,
working through Eurocontrol and EASA, the new EU safety regulator.
However, solutions must be orchestrated at a practical level internationally
and across the industry, not on a political basis. In so doing,
effective coordination must be extended beyond the EU to the ICAO
European and North Atlantic regions. That in turn would feed into
the global ICAO mechanism for development of global guidance and