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Don't trust air safety to luck

Did political pressure cause National Air Traffic Services' (Nats) New En Route Centre at Swanwick to go live too soon? The answer to this question will become clear at the end of this month, when the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is due to give its final approval for the safety and reliability of Swanwick's systems.

Some Nats watchers believe the CAA's answer to our question can only be "yes" - and they would argue that even the provisional approval that allowed the centre to go live in January was borne of misguided optimism on the CAA's part.

In reality, the CAA will almost certainly find in favour of giving Swanwick a green light. By allowing Swanwick to become provisionally operational and assume the strain of policing our skies, it has crossed the Rubicon line. And anyway, it would be unlikely to scupper an organisation that it once owned - a fact that must set a question mark over the CAA's impartiality and therefore its capability to regulate air traffic control.

However, all the facts about the Swanwick system clearly suggest that it has far to go before it can be described as reliable. Some six troubled months into its life, the system is still seriously hampered by an array of problems.

First, the training boxes (dual-control flight control systems that allow air traffic control trainers to communicate with a pilot when a trainee has made a mistake) have been taken out of operation due to reliability problems. These boxes were not included in the safety case that the CAA considered before granting its provisional approval for Swanwick to go live. But the fact that one of them has faltered under operational conditions, leading to a recent air miss report, suggests that they clearly should have been.

Second, Nats' own statistics show that incidences of "airprox" (when two aircraft suffer a "loss of separation" and stray closer than protocols dictate) and overload (when a controller files a report of excessive traffic to the CAA for investigation) problems has risen steadily over the past three months.

Third, the problem of the legibility of the screens at Swanwick will not be resolved for several months. Meanwhile, controllers have complained to the Health and Safety Executive that they are unable to decipher some of the information on their screens.

Set these problems against the backdrop of Nats' continuing financial difficulties, its trainee wastage, and the fact that the airlines are pressurising senior management to keep traffic levels as high as possible, and our air traffic control systems appear to have all the robustness of a house of cards.

The technicians that wrote the two million lines of code running at Swanwick deserve huge praise. Given time, they will no doubt deliver a truly impressive air traffic control system. But that time has not been available.

Britain's skies should be safe by design, not by luck. If the CAA chooses to rubber-stamp Swanwick's systems for full operational duties at the end of the month, it will be sending out a clear message that it believes luck has a part to play in providing a system to support safe travel.

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