2 August 2002

'Stressed' air traffic controllers urged to give up holidays

By Kim Sengupta

Air traffic controllers, already overworked and suffering from stress, are being offered cash payments by their bosses to forgo days owing and holidays in a move that is bound to provoke concerns for passenger safety.

The attempt by the National Air Traffic Services (Nats) to make controllers give up their free time comes when many have officially reported that they are under considerable pressure from work.

Since the beginning of the year, "overload" reports – filed by air traffic controllers when they feel their workload is so high that safety is compromised – have more than doubled. They rose from 20 in the first six months of last year to 44 in the same period this year. In just one week in June there were four near-misses over Britain.

In a taped message to staff last week, the service's chief operating officer, Colin Chisholm, said a board meeting on 23 July addressed a "particular concern about the number of overloads we are currently having".

The Independent has obtained internal documents, which show that the service is offering its staff £575 a day if they agree to work 20 days of their holidays, and £250 a day for the time owing. Nats is also proposing to keep staff past retirement age and to rehire retired air traffic controllers for positions in which a licence is not needed.

The plan to "buy back" time off will add to the growing controversy about the performance of Nats. An investigation by Computer Weekly magazine found that senior executives admitted to staff in a taped message that they were running a service that has created "a fairly dire position" for customers, and was damaging the credibility of the partly privatised service.

Much of the crisis emanates from the £623m air traffic control centre at Swanwick in Hampshire, which has been beset with problems since finally becoming operational this year after a delay of nearly six years. Problems have ranged from computer crashes causing severe delays to flights, to controllers complaining that they cannot read computer screens, to staff having to spend their days off in training.

In a transcript of the message seen by the magazine, Mr Chisholm says: "A really, truly awful week last week – 217,000 minutes of delay or so at Swanwick. That's a fairly dire position, I have to say, for our customers." Staff would have to continue to work very hard this summer to improve the service and make it "as good as we can".

Mr Chisholm went on to highlight the sensitivity of Nats over critical media coverage by complaining about leaks, especially from Computer Weekly magazine, which has broken a number of stories about Nats. "You can't have an intelligent and detailed technical debate in the media," he said.

Yesterday Richard Everitt, the chief executive of Nats, denied that staff shortage was due to low morale and said the problem was being addressed. He said there had been "a very bad week" but things had improved since then and the performance was variable.

The Labour MP Martin Salter, a long-standing critic of part-privatisation, said: "To all but the most jaundiced observers, it is obvious that the brave new world promised by part-privatisation of the service has simply not materialised. It seems it is teetering on the brink of crisis."

A Nats spokesman said the "buy back" proposals were part of a pay deal and were being subjected to a ballot. He added: "The result will not be known for at least a couple of weeks."