NATS stakes its reputation on meeting operational deadline

Experts are impressed with the systems and air traffic management are confident that it can be done, but could Government...

Experts are impressed with the systems and air traffic management are confident that it can be done, but could Government pressure to meet the 2001/2002 deadline be counterproductive? Tony Collins reports

If ever an organisation was willing to stake its honour and reputation on meeting a deadline for the introduction of new systems, it is National Air Traffic Services (Nats).

After six years of delays in the 1990s, Nats today says that its new air traffic control systems "will become operational in the winter of 2001/2002".

Its confidence is not in the least dented by the communications problems that were highlighted by Computer Weekly this week. "It's a somewhat marginal issue in safety terms," said a spokesman. "We are going to fix it. We will find a technical solution to it before 'O' [operational] date - we're certain we can do that and indeed we have a solution in sight. It's an issue but we are confident we can crack it."

Usually in the computer industry the deadlines for large-scale projects are known to be as flexible as putty. Not in this case. The credibility of the current Nats management appears to ride on the system going into operational service on time.

And, after conducting an independent audit of the management and computer systems at the New En Route Centre at Swanwick in Hampshire, the highly respected Defence Evaluation Research Agency said in a report that the systems will work.

The agency gave its endorsement of the winter 2001/2002 deadline. So did independent financial auditor Arthur D Little, which was appointed by the Department of Transport to conduct a financial audit of the systems at Swanwick.

Independent IT specialists have also endorsed the quality of new software, and attacked critics who suggested that the winter 2001 deadline may not be met.

Computer Weekly staff who have visited Nats have been impressed with the commitment and technical and managerial expertise of the senior management. But some independent observers wonder whether the Government is putting Nats management under too much pressure to meet the 2001/ 2002 deadline.

Without such pressures Standard Life Bank, for example, was able recently to defer the operational start of its Internet systems. Although the systems were ready, it said that it wanted to allow more time to detect any of the residual operational issues that could cause "the sort of problems that afflicted the launch of Egg".

This luxury of spare time does not appear to be available to Nats. A further challenge for Nats is managing expectations at a particularly sensitive time.

On the one hand it needs to show its critics, the Government and prospective bidders in the sale of Nats that it is on top of the problems, so open discussion of technical difficulties may be seen as unhelpful. It could be argued that, because 5% of shares in Nats will be sold to directors and staff, they will have a financial, emotional and career interest in the well being of the organisation, an integral part of which is the systems. Unflattering media articles are anathema to senior executives at Nats, and government advisers who wish to obtain the highest possible price.

On the other hand, the organisation needs to encourage criticism because it is a prerequisite to good project management. This was emphasised last year in a report on the Swanwick IT project by Arthur D Little.

The report praised many of the improvements that have taken place under the direction of the current chief executive Bill Semple. However, it added, "Whilst recognising the progress that has been made over recent years, we believe that further efforts to encourage a more open management culture within Nats at the senior and middle management levels."

It said that achieving a management culture where there is openness and receptivity to challenges on key assumptions is "critical". "Nats should take further proactive measures to ensure that remaining barriers preventing a more open management culture are identified and overcome," said the report.

Yet the proposed sale of Nats, and the pressure to be seen to be making unfettered progress towards meeting the operational deadline may be said to conflict profoundly with the requirement for openness.

"We also acknowledge that changes have been made by the current CEO since 1997 to promulgate a more open management style," said Arthur D Little. "Neverthe-less, it was reported to us in the evaluation that 'fiefdoms' may be said still to exist within Nats which are again indicative of cultural barriers."

Today, Nats is still highly sensitive to criticism. After a Sunday broadsheet newspaper reported that a "radar" glitch was threatening an early sale of Nats, the chairman Roy McNulty replied in writing that the article was wrong. His letter went on to stress that the operational date of 2001/2002 for Swanwick is on track, and he made no mention of the technical problems the project is facing.

But, aside from the pressures and counter pressures on openness, there is a further potential problem for Nats.

Experience of government IT projects shows that they sometimes stand or fall on whether they are introduced at the same time as other major changes within an organisation. In particular, the utilities sector has discovered that the sale of a company at a time when new systems are being introduced can lead to the abandonment of costly and large-scale projects.

Is it wise therefore, to sell Nats to the private sector at a time when Swanwick's new systems are undergoing the final phases of implementation?

As the date for the sale appears to have been cast in stone, this is problem which, at this stage looks insurmountable.

Yet all independent specialists who have examined the systems have been impressed with the progress made by the current management. And so far Nats has shown itself capable of successfully absorbing every punch that comes its way. Also, there are still two years to solve the remaining bugs and the current communications problem.

"We know we've been optimistic in the past," said a Nats spokesman. "But this time we really believe we're on track to meet the deadline."

Nats: key events

  • 1992: System contract for new air traffic control system let to IBM Federal Systems. Target operational date is 1996
  • 1994: Loral acquires IBM Federal Systems
  • 1995: US version of the system is abandoned. The Federal Aviation Authority "ran into considerable difficulties with the project"
  • 1996: Joint Nats-Loral re-plan. Operational date deferred until December 1997
  • 1996: Lockheed Martin acquires Loral
  • 1996: Operational date is delayed to March 1998 after problems with a simulation of the operational system
  • 1997: Operational date delayed until December 1999
  • 1998: Formal acceptance of the system from Lockheed Martin, which had already received £216.9m. It was promised more work on the system worth an anticipated extra £100m
  • Jan 1999: Defence Evaluation Research Agency said system should work. It endorsed new operational date of 2001/2002
  • Winter 2000: Bidders for Nats are due to see the system in simulated live running but not operational use
  • First quarter 2000: Training of air traffic controllers on the new system begins. A 51% share in Nats is due to be sold
  • November 2001: Projected operational date of new system
  • Read more on IT project management