Nats chief attacks reporting of controllers' safety concerns

In a remarkable attack on the press the head of National Air Traffic Services has condemned revelations about controllers' air...

In a remarkable attack on the press the head of National Air Traffic Services has condemned revelations about controllers' air safety worries. Tony Collins reports

Under the pressure of an intense media spotlight last week, a top executive at National Air Traffic Services (Nats) made a sustained attack on Computer Weekly's coverage of leaked internal reports which revealed details about the organisation's safety performance and efficiency.

Colin Chisholm, chief operating officer at Nats, spoke out in an interview broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Today programme last Thursday morning. He was responding to a recorded interview with Computer Weekly's editor, Karl Schneider.

Schneider had expressed concern about the contents of a series of internal Nats reports leaked to Computer Weekly. The documents give an insight into the pressures faced by air traffic controllers since new systems, nine years in development, went live at the New En Route Centre at Swanwick in Hampshire, earlier this year.

Most of the internal Nats reports were about the operations - based at Swanwick - of London Area Control Centre, which covers much the air space above England and Wales, excluding lower-level traffic and areas around airports.

The reports were issued against a backdrop of much enthusiasm for the system among some controllers, and dozens of complaints from others about the poor legibility of text displayed on parts of their radar screens.

The Health and Safety Executive has ruled that the standard of screen displays is sometimes below minimum legal requirements, a problem Nats hopes to fix by November. To add to the technical difficulties there is an acknowledged shortage of controllers.

One of the latest leaked documents showed a doubling of "overload" reports, which are filed by controllers when they believe their workload has been excessive to the point that safety was compromised.

Another leaked Swanwick Weekly Safety Report revealed that there had been four "airprox" events - near misses of aircraft - in one week in June 2002. Including these four, there were a total of five in the first six months of the year according to this internal Nats document.

Three of the four occurred within hours of one another on one day - 17 June.

According to other internal Nats documents a trainee controller in one of the three incidents made a mistake which had a knock-on effect that was not appreciated by his instructor.

An Airbus A320 passenger jet had been instructed to climb, which was unsafe because of a possible conflict with the path of a Virgin jumbo jet. A right turn resolved the conflict - but this action caused another conflict with a North West Airlines DC10. The incident led to a loss of separation between aircraft.

In a second incident less than an hour later a trainee unwittingly brought a Boeing 777 into potential conflict with the path of a Boeing 737. When the instructor tried to countermand the trainee's instructions, a communications box failed. A loss of separation between aircraft ensued.

The third 17 June incident arose when a military formation was unexpectedly seen coming into possible conflict with a United Airlines aircraft. The United Airlines' pilots took avoiding action.

Asked by the BBC to comment on the airprox reports Chisholm went on the offensive. "Computer Weekly's ability to get facts wrong is really quite staggering," he said. He added that computer air traffic control systems at Swanwick were settling down well, and there were signs that safety was improving. "Computer Weekly seems to be conducting some sort of campaign to scare the public, which is absolutely outrageous," he said.

Chisholm said there had been five airprox reports in June, not four as highlighted by Computer Weekly. He also said that there had been dozens of airprox reports last year. "In the first six months of this year we have done remarkably well. We have only had one risk-bearing airprox [where there was a real risk of collision] compared with seven or so last year."

But Chisholm's statement on the programme referred to a different set of airprox statistics than those mentioned in the Swanwick weekly safety reports. He was talking about statistics for the entire UK that were not necessarily related to Swanwick or to air traffic control operations.

A Nats spokesman said this week that the figures in the Swanwick weekly safety reports contained raw data, and were therefore not always reliable indicators of genuine airprox incidents.

For example, the four near misses in the Swanwick region in June were reduced to three on forther analysis, said the Nats spokesman.

But whether or not Chisholm was right to compare the figures in Swanwick's weekly safety reports with airprox figures for the UK in general is of little concern to some controllers. They are more worried by what they see as an in-built resentment of criticism at Nats, whether it comes from staff or the media.

In 1999 the organisation's defensive approach to criticism was singled out by management consultancy firm Arthur D Little as being contrary to the principles of good project management.

The Government and MPs on the House of Commons transport committee had commissioned Arthur D Little to carry out a financial and management audit of Nats, to find out what lessons could be learned from years of delays in the development of Swanwick's systems.

The report found that there had been an "unwillingness to face up to and discuss bad news, and a style which inhibited an open and frank discussion of difficult problems". Internal messages about the state of the system project were "very mild when compared with the reality of the true risks," it said.

The Arthur D Little report added, "Almost without exception, any negative statement about the New En Route Centre systems project is balanced by a positive one without an objective measure being provided of the severity of the risks or their potential impact." It said that the "whole culture and environment" was a "major contributor to weakness in picking up on major issues".

Few doubt that Nats has become much more open since 1999, but controllers say there is still a resentment of criticism. For example dozens of controllers complained last year about having difficulty reading screens but in some cases their concerns were dismissed as trivial. In documents seen by Computer Weekly some staff claim they were told by managers to get glasses, but when they had their eyes tested they were told their vision was perfect.

Another insight into senior management's approach to criticism is revealed in an internal letter to staff from a senior Nats executive, Ian Hall.

The letter is dated July 2001 but was leaked only this week. "I am pleased to say that I am hearing less about the irritating 'Tanks and Snipers' who force their contrary views or pick off colleagues who want to do a good job and are prepared to do a bit more," it says.

Today some controllers question whether, apart from more openness, the culture at Nats has changed enough to guarantee that their concerns on safety will always be recognised as such, or will continue to be dismissed as the captious carpings of disgruntled employees.

In the past the media has often been an accountability back-stop for concerned staff. But if Nats responds to leaked reports by attacking the messenger - belittling or disparaging the information in its own documents - this may not add to the organisation's safety culture or improve its relations with controllers.

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