22 August 2000

Aircraft near-misses are not reported, admits controller

By Paul Lashmar

More passenger jets flying in Britain's crowded airspace come close to having mid-air collisions than are officially admitted, a serving air traffic controller has claimed. He says that it is "common" for controllers at the National Air Traffic Services' (Nats) West Drayton control centre not to report near misses.

Channel 4 News also say that the computer failure at West Drayton in June, which resulted in cancellations, was just one of a recent series of computer breakdowns.

The programme reveals that the same computers have failed a further three times in the last two months and say the failure in June was significantly more serious than admitted.

The worst error is alleged to have occurred to the computer which recognises the call signs of each plane and translates this into a flight number on the controller's radar.

The Civil Aviation Authority says that despite the growth in air traffic the number of near misses, nearly 100 a year, is not increasing. But on tonight's news, the controller admits he has not reported near misses, as legally required, most recently when two jets came within only 600 feet of each other in height.

The controller, who is not identified, said: "In the situation that I was involved with, an aircraft climbed above its cleared level and breached the 1,000ft separation standards by a few hundred feet. If it hadn't been resolved, there was a potential conflict between the two aircraft." It is the first time a controller has publicly admitted safety breaches.

The director of Nats, Bill Semple, denies the allegations and believes the published near-miss figures are reliable. He said: "Two large aircraft within 600 feet of one another is not in my view a situation which was safe and I think under those circumstances he should have reported it."

The controller said: "Invariably when an incident is investigated some flak ends up on you even if your always totally blameless."

He claims that at least twice on that day the computer gave two different aircraft an identical call sign at the same time. "It was an unacceptable safety situation," he said.