28 January 2002

Flight delays increase as air traffic centre opens

By Paul Marston

Air traffic delays rose by about half yesterday as controllers familiarised themselves with new equipment at a belatedly opened national air traffic control centre.

Staff at the £620 million centre at Swanwick, Hants, which began operating five years later than originally planned, experienced minor difficulties with telephone lines but faced greater problems because of the bad weather.

Poor visibility led to aircraft moving more cautiously on the ground, thus requiring other planes to stack for longer periods before landing.

Five of the country's 29 airspace sectors became congested. The worst affected were inbound flights from Spain, and from Central Europe, Scandinavia and the Middle East, which were delayed by more than an hour.

On a normal day, air traffic control problems result in delays to about eight per cent of flights. Yesterday, the figure was estimated to be around 12 per cent.

Today, which has a heavier flight schedule than a Sunday, could see more extensive difficulties, as the weather forecast is not good.

Richard Everitt, chief executive of National Air Traffic Services [Nats], described Swanwick as "the most technically advanced air traffic control centre in the world".

He said it would create the capacity to handle the expected 50 per cent increase in the number of flights a year by 2011, and should lead to current average delays of 90 seconds per flight falling by a third.

Coinciding with the transfer of control from the old headquarters at West Drayton, near Heathrow, a reduction in maximum air traffic flows has been imposed as a precaution while controllers become accustomed to "live" use of the new computer systems.

This is likely to last for several weeks, though Nats hopes that delays will be minimal outside peak hours.

The centre was originally scheduled to open in 1996 but its pioneering technology was beset by problems. The unreliability of its software was finally overcome last year.