Air traffic chief briefs staff against leakers

The chief operating officer of National Air Traffic Services, has recorded a message to staff denigrating those who leak...

The chief operating officer of National Air Traffic Services, has recorded a message to staff denigrating those who leak information to the media, and turning on Computer Weekly in particular, after the magazine followed up on the leaks. Tony Collins reports.

As delays for air passengers increase, partly because of problems related to the Swanwick air traffic control centre in Hampshire, the site's owner National Air Traffic Services (Nats) has turned on some of its own staff and on Computer Weekly.

Senior Nats management recorded criticisms of the magazine and of staff who leak documents, on a tape played to employees when they dialed a special telephone number set up to provide regular reports on the company's performance and important developments.

Nats' chief operating officer, Colin Chisholm, recorded the announcement, which is available to hundreds of staff, on 16 July. The telephone number was leaked to Computer Weekly. The recorded statement revealed an organisation in deep trouble.

Chisholm's message mentioned the company's financial difficulties, then gave "a quick word on service".

"A really truly awful week last week," he said, adding that delays caused by Nats were damaging the organisation's reputation and credibility with its customers - airline operators and passengers. Adding up the delays suffered by each airline because of air traffic control issues, the cumulative figure was 217,000 minutes in one week in early July.

"That's a fairly dire position, I have to say, for our customers and we are going to have to continue to work very hard through the summer to improve on that and make it as good as we can," said Chisholm.

After the talk the delays rose last week to about 220,000 minutes.

Chisholm's recorded message went on to attack staff for leaking documents to Computer Weekly. The message continued, "As most of you will have noticed I have been on the national radio and television this week speaking about safety in particular. It was triggered by - yet again - stuff in Computer Weekly, and they base that on leaked reports from members of our staff.

"That information is going into Computer Weekly and they then in turn write very biased and ill-informed articles. We try and correct those but they do not always take on board our point."

He added, "I am trying to promote a debate within the company about the damage that those sort of leaks do to us. They really are extraordinarily damaging."

In a pointed closing comment, he said he planned to visit staff in Edinburgh and added, "I am sure the folk up there are doing a great job like most of you are."

Computer Weekly had reported on a high number of "overloads" - reports filed by air traffic controllers when they believed their workloads were excessive to the point where they felt safety was compromised.

Overloads have increased since the New En Route Centre at Swanwick went into operation in January this year. Its opening had been delayed by nearly six years because of managerial and technical problems involving software written by IBM and, later, Lockheed Martin.

Since January, overload reports have more than doubled, from 20 in the first six months of last year to 44 in the same period in 2002.

Some controllers have had difficulty reading their computer screens, and the Health & Safety Executive has said that the poor clarity of some text does not meet statutory regulations - a problem Nats expects to fix by November.

Whether or not Chisholm's criticisms of some Nats staff and Computer Weekly are justified, it is clear that the managerial challenges faced by the company since Swanwick became operational are increasing.

The good news for Nats is that there have been none of the most serious type of near misses, and Britain's record of safety in the skies is exemplary. But in other respects airlines are only too aware of the company's problems.

On 25 July the European air traffic control centre, Eurocontrol, at Brussels warned airline operators with flights in some of the areas covered by Swanwick of "major delays" caused by "staff shortages and air traffic control capacity".

Aircraft flying within UK airspace were asked, in writing by Eurocontrol, not to take detours around areas hit by delays of up to 110 minutes. But flights not due to depart or land in Great Britain were "strongly recommended" to avoid UK airspace altogether. The advice related to 25 July only.

Four years ago an upbeat Nats gave a very different impression to the House of Commons transport committee.

In 1998 it told MPs that Swanwick would provide what it called an "immediate" 40% increase in capacity, adding, "The 40% gain in capacity is essentially 'guaranteed' because the basic air traffic control concepts are not changed. Modern ergonomically-designed equipment, coupled with workload restructuring, enables controllers to work more effectively and thus handle increased traffic demand," it said.

Nats chiefs were also adamant that it would not face a shortage of air traffic controllers. "Nats denied that there was any shortage of air traffic controllers," said a transport committee report in 2001. "It told us that 'a key requirement is to have sufficient validated controllers in place for the start of operational services at Swanwick in January 2002'. Manpower projections indicate that the supply of controllers will be sufficient to meet operational requirements."

The committee was also told that, far from being short of controllers, there were already "some 60 [extra controllers] in the area control operation at London Air Traffic Control Centre".

Yet today Nats is so short-staffed that it has proposed keeping staff who would otherwise retire and re-hiring retired air traffic controllers for posts for which a licence is not needed. It is also offering controllers a salary supplement of £11,500, or £575 a day, if they commit in advance to working 20 days of their time off.

"Service delivery is critical for Nats and in the current exceptional circumstances the availability of additional voluntary attendances is crucial," Nats has told staff in a letter.

A range of other financial incentives is also being offered, including buying back, at £250 a day, a large backlog of time off in lieu accrued while staff spent extra hours training to use Swanwick's systems.

But while controllers are being urged to give up their free time, there is evidence from the high number of overload reports that even without sacrificing their holidays they are under considerable pressures at work.

In the taped message to staff last week Chisholm said a Nats board meeting on 23 July looked to address a "particular concern about the number of overloads we are currently having".

Meanwhile, as leaks of internal documents continue, leading to articles in Computer Weekly and elsewhere, Nats remains under pressure to defend itself.

Chisholm referred in his message to the difficulties of having an intelligent and detailed technical debate in the media. "Both the trade union side and myself and Richard [Everitt, chief executive of Nats] end up simplifying things and end up saying things that are not absolutely accurate in all senses. That is the nature of media debates. I certainly don't like that and I'd rather we were having all of that debate internally."

Some staff believe that the company's irritation with the media is a sign that the Nats organisation may be buckling under the pressures of staff shortages and an increasingly questionable service while users are still familiarising themselves with the new computer system.

This was denied by a company spokesman, who said that from April to mid-July Swanwick handled significant extra traffic while delays were up 12.8% on the same period last year. A series of measures will ease future delays, including training an extra 62 controllers. The spokesman added, "Nats has always said that Swanwick, with its new systems, new way of working and new working environment would take time to settle down."

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