NATS criticised after flights seriously disrupted after computer failure at UK control centre

On 12th Decemer, a computer problem at Swanwick, the main NATS air traffic control centre, caused huge disruption to airspace. The problem was sorted out after 45 minutes, but it lead to extensive delays for many hours afterwards.  Some 10,000 passengers at Heathrow were affected, with over 128 flights cancelled.  NATS is accused of cutting corners to boost profits and management bonuses. They are allegedly still using technology from the 1960s, though the section of the system that failed was designed in the 1990s. NATS commented that “Often the oldest technology is the most reliable. That is why it is still there.” There was also a bad failure in December 2013 which caused a much greater amount of flight disruption. There is to be an inquiry, but as the issues are technical and complex, this will be by the CAA and NATS. Transport committee’s chairman Louise Ellman questioned Mr McLoughlin about the inquiry – saying it “did not look very independent”.  Richard Deakin (NATS CEO) said NATS will be spending £575m over the next five years on systems.


Air chaos: ‘10,000’ hit by Nats glitch at Heathrow

15.12.2014 (BBC)

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Patrick McLoughlin told the committee last week’s disruption was significantly less than December 2013

Up to 10,000 passengers at Heathrow alone were affected by an air traffic control computer failure, the transport secretary has confirmed.

Patrick McLoughlin said Friday’s failure was “unacceptable” but defended the National Air Traffic Services.

He told MPs he welcomed an inquiry by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) into the chaos, saying he hoped the findings would be available by March 2015.

Nats has blamed a computer glitch for disruption to flights across the UK.

Answering questions from the House of Commons Transport Committee, Mr McLoughlin defended the overall performance of Nats, saying it was doing “an incredibly good job”.

“The average delay this year in Nats is 2.5 seconds per flight, whereas the rest of Europe we’re taking about 30 seconds,” he said.

He also compared the disruption to a telephone failure at the Swanwick centre in December 2013, which also caused flight disruption.

That incident caused 126,000 minutes of delays, compared to Friday’s 16,000 minutes, Mr McLoughlin said.

Mr McLoughlin said he wanted to “find out what went wrong and make sure it doesn’t happen again”
Earlier, Prime Minister David Cameron said the failure – which has been blamed on a single line of compute code in one flight system – would be examined “very, very carefully”.

The CAA is to appoint an independent chair to lead the inquiry, which will take evidence from experts on information technology and air traffic control.

However, the transport committee’s chairman Louise Ellman questioned Mr McLoughlin about the inquiry – which could involve CAA and Nats staff – saying it “did not look very independent”.

The inquiry would be dealing with a very specialised and technical area, Mr McLoughlin said. He said there was a limited number of people who could carry it out.

“We want to find out what went wrong and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he added,

Criticism rejected
Investment by Nats has been questioned since Friday’s failure, which grounded many flights at Heathrow and Gatwick with knock-on effects at other UK airports.

Heathrow also cancelled about 40 flights on Saturday morning before normal services resumed.

The company’s chief executive, Richard Deakin, rejected criticism from Business Secretary Vince Cable, who accused the company of “skimping on large-scale investment” and being “penny wise and pound foolish”.

The company says it will be spending £575m over the next five years on systems.

Mr Deakin has also faced calls from Labour MP Paul Flynn to have his bonus docked because of the disruption.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said he expected his pay to be affected by the incident but stressed that Nats’ performance over the year had been good.

“We have the funding that we need to deliver the service that we require,” he added.

Related BBC Stories


Nats defends air traffic system as failure scrutinised

By Peggy Hollinger and Elizabeth Rigby

December 15, 2014 (Financial Times)

British Airways has said Thursday June 3, 2004, that the national air traffic control computer system crashed at 6am and flights were being operated manually by air traffic controllers

On an average day some 6,000 aircraft fly through UK airspace, roughly a fifth of the 30,000 planes that criss-cross Europe. No other European airspace is as busy and complex.
So Friday’s systems setback at the UK’s main air traffic control centre in Swanwick, Hampshire, may only have lasted 45 minutes, but it had serious consequences.

Patrick McLoughlin, transport secretary, told MPs on Monday that 10,000 passengers at Heathrow had been affected by cancellations, with the failure causing 16,000 minutes in delays as over 128 flights were cancelled.

Now Nats, one of Europe’s few privatised air traffic control groups, stands accused of cutting corners to boost profits and management bonuses.

“We need to have a very careful look at this and the Civil Aviation Authority will be running an independent inquiry into what happened,” the transport secretary told MPs. “It seems as if it was some sort of computer failure. Our skies and air traffic control are highly important business and we need to look at it very, very carefully.”

Vince Cable, business secretary, at the weekend claimed that Nats had skimped on investment for many years leaving it relying on outdated technology. His assault has led to calls for management to forgo bonuses as they did after the last systems failure in Swanwick, almost exactly a year ago.

Mr McLoughlin dismissed his colleague’s concerns on Monday, remarking that he was “not quite sure where Vince got his briefing from or on what he based that answer”.

But MPs on the transport select committee echoed the business secretary’s concerns in a parliamentary hearing and have summoned the CAA and Nats to the committee on Wednesday to hear their versions of events.

Friday’s problem did in fact occur in a part of the system that was designed in the 1990s, says Martin Rolfe, managing director of operations. However, he rejects suggestions that this means Nats’ systems are not suited to purpose. “Often the oldest technology is the most reliable. That is why it is still there,” he says.

Critics have also accused Nats of using a more costly custom-built technology which is more difficult to upgrade than the off the shelf systems bought by peers in Germany or France. In fact, Friday’s setback happened as Nats was attempting to expand Swanwick’s capability to deal with the rapidly growing number of flights passing through UK airspace.
But Mr Rolfe says that when the technology was chosen, there was nothing suitably sophisticated to deal with the volumes of flights handled in the UK. This high intensity has also meant that Nats has had to upgrade bit by bit rather than implement a wholesale overhaul as technology improved.

“It is like upgrading an F1 car that is running 24 hours a day seven days a week. Imagine upgrading it while it is still running,” he said. “There is a limit to how much investment we can make in any one period.”

Industry experts are more understanding than politicians of the challenges facing Nats. “They have maintained high levels of investment,” says Jenny Beechener, editor of IHS Jane’s Air Traffic Control yearbook. “Certainly they are at levels very similar to other leading air navigation service providers.”

Published documents show that Nats capital investment has outstripped its state-controlled German peer for the last five years, the UK group says.

Yet it is true that Nats, like other European air traffic control providers, is under pressure from regulators to cut costs — a difficult task when a majority of these are tied up in personnel. Cost efficiency has been held back by the delays in implementing European legislation on single skies, which would mean pooling air traffic control services — and large numbers of job cuts.

But Mr Rolfe says this has not stopped Nats from investing what is needed to improve efficiency. In the last regulatory review Nats got the go-ahead for investment of £575m over the next five years, which he says will mark the beginning of an acceleration in implementation of new technology
Airlines also question whether Nats’ performance — excluding the delays caused by congestion at Heathrow — is any worse than that of its continental European peers. “Across Europe we see similar outages,” said a UK carrier with a big European network. “Typically we see one or two in each region on an annual basis.”

Airlines also point out that more flights are lost to strikes by continental European air traffic controllers than to systems failures in the UK. On Friday easyJet was forced to cancel 76 flights because of industrial action by Italian controllers, while it axed just 10 flights after the Swanwick systems glitch.

Nats handled 2.2m flights last year and claims its efficiency is greater than many of its state owned peers. Average delay per flight attributable to Nats was 5.5 seconds “which is about one-fifth of the average European delay per flight” the group says.

Those claims were supported by the transport secretary on Monday who described the performance of the British air traffic control as “far superior” to European counterparts.
Yet there is still a perception that Nats has suffered setbacks ever since it was privatised in 2001. The systems failure last year, and Friday’s outage, was seen as a continuation of problems at Swanwick, which was five years late and millions over budget when it came online more than a decade ago.

It is a view which puzzles Ms Beechener. “Nats has actually been quite innovative,” she says. “They have been pioneering in the commercial sector and have become much smarter about how they invest. And Nats safety record is as good as any across Europe.”
Latest political storm
This is not the first time that Nats has flown into a political storm. Its partial privatisation by a Labour government in 2001 was highly controversial, not just in the UK but in Europe, where it sparked fears of a British takeover of the continent’s air traffic control services, writes Peggy Hollinger.

The outcry was revived when Nats sought an injection of funds from shareholders just six months after the sell-off, because the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York had caused a sharp slump in air travel. To fund the part-privatisation the group had had to take on significant debt to repay loans to the government. It quickly came to the conclusion that it had overpaid and its bankers urged it to ask for a refund.

Thirteen years later Nats has delivered for its shareholders, who still include the government with 49 per cent and a golden share. The rest is held by employees who have 5 per cent, LHR, the airports operator with 4 per cent, while a consortium of seven airlines holds 42 per cent.

This year the group is expected to pay out £77m in dividends. It has expanded its international operations but the bread and butter business is still the regulated UK operation and that has proved extremely profitable. Since 2007 the group has doubled its operating profit before exceptional items from £120.6m to £240m, on sales up from £552.2m to £917.6m.

Nats executives are emphatic that the government sell-off has not created constraints on investment. To a large extent this is decided through a regulatory review process which determines the fees Nats can charge airlines to fund its regulated business and the returns it can make on investment.

“Average annual expenditure (on investment) . . . has been between 1.4 times and 1.9 times the annual level before privatisation,” the group said.

In the last review 18 months ago, Nats says it agreed to “reduce prices by about 20 per cent in real terms principally through reducing its operating costs, despite the pattern of rising traffic, while broadly maintaining the level of its capital investment programme”.