Tomasz Zajda -

NATS: Bumpy ride ahead as data system crashes

Mike Simons reports on the future of the National Air Traffic Control Service after its recent problems

The software glitches that left thousands of travellers stewing in UK airports have emphasised the problems faced by the National Air Traffic Control Service (Nats) as it tries to get the New En Route Centre at Swanwick operational by spring 2002.

For years Nats has lived a schizophrenic existence. The Swanwick centre has become a by-word for poor IT project management. It is hundreds of millions of pounds over budget and many years behind schedule.

Swanwick's champions in Nats may say things are back on track and that they are confident of meeting the revised deadlines outlined to the House of Commons in 1998. Nevertheless, Nats insiders admit that the only way their reputation will recover is if Swanwick goes on line without further delay.

Until this month's highly publicised failures, the record of the New En Route Centre had masked Nats' success with its main "back office" processing platform, the Flight Data Processing System (FDPS). The system will play a pivotal role in the Swanwick centre until at least 2005.

Nats claims that before this month's problems, FDPS had been operating at 99.9987% availability, with typically less than one failure a year for operationally critical systems. This availability was achieved while coping with air traffic growth of 5% or more a year.

For Nats, necessity has been the mother of invention. Managers justified the construction of the Swanwick centre by arguing that the existing facilities, including FDPS, could not cope with soaring levels of air traffic.

But as Swanwick slipped behind schedule and air traffic increased remorselessly Nats had no option but to continually upgrade the system.

Nats IT chief Frank Agnew is confident that the recent failures were "once in 15- or 20-year events", that will not be repeated.

"Look at our record with FDPS," Agnew said. "These were very unusual events. We have gone deep into what happened and read across from what we found to check other processes."

Agnew has commissioned an independent review of his findings into this month's problems and into Nats systems design and management. He is confident that his team will be vindicated and that the FDPS is capable of further adaptation to cope with increasing demand.

Despite the record of Agnew's team and their confidence, this month's failures leave key questions:

  • Is there any more capacity to be squeezed out of FDPS?

  • Were this month's failures an aberration, or a sign that Nats' ingenuity has run into the buffers of its already stretched capacity?

    This month's breakdowns come as Nats is entering a period of organisational and technical change.

    Agnew admitted that the organisation faces major technical challenges including rehosting the FDPS to new mainframes and bringing Swanwick online successfully.

    Nats plans to move the FDPS from an IBM 4381 mainframe to an IBM S/390 mainframe this summer. It tried to upgrade to the S/390 platform last summer but hit problems and suspended the transfer. It hopes to benefit from the experience of the US Federal Aviation Authority, which recently upgraded its mainframe from the 4381 to S/390.

    Nats is also under pressure to hit the deadline for technical handover of Swanwick, the point where management can declare the project is ready to provide an operational service.

    For the past two years Nats has said that technical handover would take place by October 2000. Recently this has been put back to the end of the year, though Nats insists that the delay is not significant. "Swanwick continues to remain on track for operational delivery in winter 2001/02," a Nats representative told Computer Weekly.

    While safety has never been an issue with FDPS, the comfort of millions of air travellers and the business proposition of Nats depends on Agnew and his team continuing to extract extra capacity from the system.

    The future of FDPS does not depend on the technical skill of Nats IT staff alone. Its replacement depends on the investment plans of Nats, which is in the throws of partial privatisation. It also depends on efforts to create a Europe-wide integrated air traffic control system and the development of a potentially highly lucrative new generation of flight data processing packages.

    That combination of technical, financial and political uncertainty would send a shiver down the spine of any IT project manager.

    Key events in Nats diary

  • 1992: system contract for new air traffic control system let to IBM Federal Systems. Target operational date is 1996

  • 1998: Commons Select Committee criticises Nats over Swanwick

  • Spring 2000: parliament debates plans to sell 51% share in Nats

  • October 2000: planned technical handover of Swanwick

  • January 2001: conversion training for air traffic controllers

  • Spring 2002: final deadline for Swanwick to go into operational use

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