23 May 2002

Air control mixed up Cardiff and Glasgow

By Paul Marston, Transport Correspondent

Air traffic controllers at their new national centre have misread the heights at which aircraft are flying and even planned to send them to the wrong airports because the computer screens are hard to read, managers admitted yesterday.

In one case, preparation was begun on a route to Cardiff before planners realised the airborne flight was bound for Glasgow. In another, an aircraft was thought to be flying at 36,000ft when in fact it was 6,000ft lower.

National Air Traffic Services (Nats) conceded that such errors had taken place, but insisted that they had been committed by planning staff, not the controllers actually handling aircraft.

"We had some legibility problems on the planners' displays," an official said. "But no difficulties have been reported with controllers' screens, so none of the incidents affected safety."

Instructions to pilots are issued by controllers and their assistants. Planners undertake preparatory work to estimate the most efficient routes for flights.

Since March, the newly privatised air traffic system has suffered four serious computer breakdowns, causing thousands of flight delays. Two of the failures occurred at the new £620 million centre in Swanwick, Hants, and two at the old headquarters at West Drayton, near Heathrow.

Nats said improvements to planners' screens had been developed, and would be implemented shortly.