11 July 2002

Danger reports in air traffic more than double

By Barrie Clement, Transport Editor

Reports of excessive and unsafe workloads by air traffic controllers have more than doubled,
leaked documents show. The instances were up from 20 in the first six months of last year to 44 in the same period this year.

The National Air Traffic Services(Nats) document, leaked to Computer Weekly magazine, showed that in one particularly fraught week of June this year there were four near-misses. There was only one other in the rest of the six-month period. But the papers showed there were seven near-misses in the similar period of 2001.

The report also showed that delays attributable to Nats as a result of operations at its new
£623m centre at Swanwick in Hampshire almost doubled in the last week of June this year
compared with the week in 2001. Passengers faced 169,401 minutes of delays – the equivalent of 16 days – in the week ending 30 June. That compared with 83,469 minutes in that week last year.

The magazine said a letter issued in June 2001 by the air traffic control company showed managers were deeply concerned even then about "record levels" of delays and at their worst were "twice what we would expect". A Nats spokesman said the part-privatised company had 62 controllers in training and when instruction was complete the situation would ease. "We actively encourage all employees to report any incident which they think
may have compromised safety, so we can learn from it."

* An Air Accident Investigation Branch report into an incident on an Airtours Airbus A320 from Gatwick to Majorca on 10 June 2000 revealed how passengers became "confused, distressed and highly anxious" when faulty maintenance forced their jet to make an emergency descent. Many suffered ear pain and some had chest pains when they struggled to don oxygen masks, some said to be faulty, after cabin pressure failed at an equivalent of 14,000ft.