Nats: accept the facts, take action

It is vital that Nats executives recognise there are problems with Swanwick's air traffic systems

It is vital that Nats executives recognise there are problems with Swanwick's air traffic systems

The members of the Aviation Club who were present to hear a speech delivered on 19 September by Richard Everitt, chief executive of National Air Traffic Services (Nats), will have been heartened to hear him speak in such glowing terms of the integrity and robustness of systems at the new, £623m centre at Swanwick.

Everitt purred, "We have successfully introduced into service at Swanwick the world's most sophisticated and technologically advanced air traffic control system."

His only admission of the existence of any "teething troubles" at Swanwick came in a reference to delays caused by the ongoing staffing problems affecting the centre.

Everitt made no reference to the current problems of screen legibility; and he was clearly unaware of the "data garbling" problems highlighted by two operational notices sent to traffic controllers working at Swanwick on 27 September and seen by Computer Weekly.

One of these notices raises the question of why Swanwick's systems are failing to recognise corrupted radar data as anomalous, leading to the appearance in certain circumstances of non-existent tracks of aircraft on screen and the garbling of on-screen data boxes. This glitch can trigger alarms of possible losses of separation between aircraft - alarms that must then be addressed by flight controllers.

In other words, Nats personnel can end up chasing shadows, when they should be ensuring the safe passage of planes in our airspace.

The Nats chief executive's optimism before the Aviation Club is symptomatic of a more widespread reluctance among the upper tiers of management at Swanwick to admit to systems flaws. Rather than conceding that the appearance of "ghost" aircraft tracks on screen is a potentially serious problem, Nats' spokespeople have tried to defuse the issue by dismissing the problem as one shared by all air traffic systems around the globe.

This is not quite true. The problems of ghost aircraft did not affect the systems at West Drayton that Swanwick replaced, for instance.

Just as perplexing was Nats' decision to withdraw this notice of a permanent change to operational procedures, just hours after being contacted by Computer Weekly, and replace it with a separate notice that shifts the onus of dealing with the problem of on-screen ghosting onto controllers.

The problem of aircraft ghosting is, at least in part, due to the inadequate testing that took place before Swanwick went live - prematurely, some would say - in January. These tests, which relied in part upon simulated, rather than live, radar data, did not show up the current anomalies. But you are unlikely to hear a Nats executive admit to this. They are far more likely to perpetuate their rosy picture of flawless systems and safe skies.

The last thing Computer Weekly wishes to do, through its coverage of the problems at Swanwick, is to scaremonger. We have concerns, and we would now like Nats to admit that they are valid, and to address them. After all, you cannot solve a problem until you recognise you have got one.

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