14 June 2002

Air control safety complaints soar

By Paul Marston Transport Correspondent

The number of formal complaints of over-work from air traffic controllers has more than doubled since the national control centre opened in January, senior managers admitted yesterday.

National Air Traffic Services (Nats) said staff had filed 30 "overload" reports in the last five months, compared with 12 during the same period in 2001.

Controllers log overload incidents when the aircraft movements they are required to handle at any one time become so numerous or complex that normal safety standards are felt to be under threat.

With traffic levels down 3.5 per cent this year, reflecting the post-September 11 slump in transatlantic flights, the surge in overloads is being blamed on controllers' difficulties in coping with the computer systems at the new centre at Swanwick, near Southampton.

Technical problems put back the opening of the £620 million base by six years and have twice caused severe flight delays in the last three months. Systems failures at the old centre at West Drayton, near Heathrow, have wrecked airline timetables on two other occasions.

Planning staff at Swanwick have also complained about the legibility of some flight levels and airport codes on their terminal displays. Managers of Nats, which was semi-privatised last year, say they do not expect to solve the font-size problem until November.

Colin Chisholm, Nats chief operating officer, said the overload total had increased because controllers were still familiarising themselves with Swanwick's more sophisticated technology.

The Civil Aviation Authority is to review all airspace safety incidents involving military and commercial aircraft following a series of near-misses in the North East.

In one incident, A KLMuk flight with 41 people on board had to go into an emergency climb to avoid an American F15 fighter south of Teeside. They were just 400ft apart.