24 January 2002

Delays feared as £623m air traffic control centre opens

By Barrie Clement, Transport Editor

Air traffic controllers at the £623m new command centre at Swanwick due to "go live" on Sunday have expressed serious concerns about their equipment.

Management and employees' representatives were meeting last night in an attempt to resolve the problem to ensure a smooth "switch-over" from the old West Drayton centre in west London to the new complex in Hampshire which will control upper air space over England and Wales.

Management at the part-privatised National Air Traffic Services (Nats), which owns the complex, has warned there may be delays in peak periods over the coming weeks as controllers "bed" the system in. Staff have received prolonged training on the new equipment but management has ensured that the old West Drayton centre is kept in operational readiness in case there is a major problem.

Industry sources say that controllers with spectacles have complained to Nats that under some circumstances they are unable to see the part of their screen dealing with the "big picture" and are concerned that the difficulty could impair their work. The section of the computer concentrating on the aircraft under their immediate control does not seem to present a problem.

The much-delayed change-over – the centre was initially due to open in 1996 – is scheduled for between midnight and 2.30am on Sunday morning.

Iain Findlay, aviation officer for the air traffic controllers' union Prospect, confirmed there had been problems with the ergonomic design of equipment at the new centre. "We have reached agreement with National Air Traffic Services that this will be looked at in light of the operational experiences of our members and the effect on their health and safety," he said.

He said the safety of air passengers was of "paramount importance" to controllers. He said the union was therefore pleased that the Safety Regulation Group of the Civil Aviation Authority, which has ultimate responsibility for UK air safety, had declared that Swanwick was safe. "They have stated that the problems identified will not put air safety at risk," Mr Findlay said.

Nevertheless he said the union was meeting the Health and Safety Executive and Nats yesterday "to find solutions which will not only allow the smooth transfer of operational control from West Drayton to Swanwick on Sunday, but ensure that any health and safety defects are put right as quickly as possible".

The news emerged hours before the biggest change in the management of European air traffic for 50 years. Last night at midnight, authorities halved the vertical separation between planes to 1,000 feet with the aim of increasing capacity in Europe's congested skies. The change is being introduced simultaneously in 41 countries in Europe and North America.