Nats withdraws air traffic controller training boxes

National Air Traffic Services (Nats) has withdrawn its communications boxes, used in the training of air traffic controllers,...

National Air Traffic Services (Nats) has withdrawn its communications boxes, used in the training of air traffic controllers, after one failed last month leading to a near miss report.

The withdrawal notice to staff, instructing them "not to use" the training boxes, will add to the operational challenges for Nats as new computer systems bed down at the £623m Swanwick air traffic control centre near Southampton.

An internal Nats report headed "Clarification on use of OJTI [On-the-Job Training Instructor] training boxes" said, "Staff are not to use the current [Swanwick] OJTI training boxes due to reliability problems that have been encountered."

Last month the failure of an OJTI communication box, which allows air traffic control instructors to talk directly to pilots and over-ride any mistakes made by trainees, contributed to a loss of the minimum legal separation between two aircraft. A trainee had given an incorrect instruction to a pilot, but the instructor was unable to correct it immediately.

The withdrawal notice raises questions over why, if the boxes were flawed, safety regulator the Civil Aviation Authority allowed them to be used in live operations.

A separate Nats report, leaked to Computer Weekly, said delays suffered by airlines during the current holiday season have risen substantially compared to the same period last year, when Swanwick had yet to come into operation.

Swanwick went live in January, when it assumed control of the skies over England and Wales from an ageing operations centre at West Drayton near Heathrow.

A report entitled "Total minutes of Nats attributable delay" included statistics on delays to airlines as a result of operations based at Swanwick. It said there was a 98% increase in the total minutes of delay in the week ending 30 June, when compared with the same week last year. Flight delays were equivalent to 169,401 minutes in that week, compared to 83,469 minutes in the same week last year.

The figures are more serious when put into the context of a letter issued by Nats in June 2001 which said the delays at that time were at "record levels" and at their worst were "twice what we would expect".

Leaked figures also revealed that there were four near misses in the week ending 23 June, compared with seven in the whole of the first six months of last year, although none were in the most serious "A" category, which denotes a high risk of collision.

A Nats spokesman said the withdrawal of communications boxes has had a minimal impact on training, and new equipment which has proved reliable in trials is due to be installed next week.

He added that the average delay per flight was 2.4 minutes, compared with a target of 1.4 minutes. This was due, he said, to several factors including a shortage of staff. Fewer control positions are being manned, and some delays are necessary to ensure that levels of safety are maintained, he said.

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