Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by The Guild of Air Traffic Control Officers (NATS 04)


  The Guild of Air Traffic Control Officers is responding to the request for written evidence from the Transport Sub-committee of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee regarding the National Air Traffic Services.

  The Guild has a membership of over 2,000 United Kingdom air traffic controllers of whom 50 per cent are employed by the National Air Traffic Services. The Guild is not a trade union and has no political affiliation.

  Before responding to the particular areas mentioned in the request for written evidence, the Guild wishes to re-emphasise its opposition to the Government's proposal for the Public-Private Partnership for the National Air Traffic Services.

  It is important to state that GATCO is not opposed to the concept of privatisation, some of our members actually being employed in the private sector, but it is the specific form of "privatisation" of NATS to which we object.

  The Guild continues to believe that the proposal based on a public private partnership is untried and unproven and is therefore not acceptable for the safety critical air traffic control industry. The involvement of shareholders with their natural expectation for a return on their investment is seen as inappropriate.

  The Guild is concerned that other methods of achieving the required level of financing have been ignored by the Government without adequate answers being forthcoming. GATCO urges that the National Air Traffic Services be converted into an Independent Publicly Owned Company or a Public Trust wholly under Government ownership and control. We draw attention to the "corporatised" national air traffic control models operating in Canada, Germany and New Zealand.

  The examples given by the Guild of alternative funding are real and not untried and untested, like those proposed by the Government. The Guild finds it totally unacceptable that such alternatives are being ignored in favour of a trade sale with shareholders involvement.

  With the requirement of a financial return being fundamental, GATCO is concerned what effect this will have on areas of air traffic services currently undertaken by NATS on a non-profit basis. Will these be discontinued and if correct, what effect will this have on safety?

  Outside of NATS, one private operating company of a major ATSU publicly announced its lack of enthusiasm for expenditure that was not income generating and only undertook the necessary investment in its ATC facility following the intervention of the Safety Regulator.

  The Guild is also concerned with respect to the future of applied research and development in United Kingdom air traffic control. NATS has placed itself as the UK's prime source of expertise in advanced controller tool development, and therefore in capacity increase techniques. It has, along with the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA), secured itself as one of the two perennial UK participants in Global ATM developments and as a frequent partner and risk sharer in European programmes. It also functions as a specialist representative on behalf of the UK at many international events in a pseudo diplomatic role.

  Our concern is that NATS, as a private company, might no longer be able (nor may wish) to perform these roles. NATS may not always wish to share either risk or information with some other service and system providers in a co-operative partnership. When operating as a truly independent commercial entity, NATS will need a much greater degree of commercial confidentiality in its operations.

  NATS Research and Development Organisation is currently the only resource within the UK with the integrated ability of simulation, demonstration, consultation, evaluation and training at the operational and user level. NATS Infrastructure Organisation has allied roles to play in the field of communications, navigation and surveillance. Some privatisations in other ATC organisations have been quite savage in their commitment to abolish either in part, or totally, any cost overhead which is in addition to the day to day operational task.

  Given NATS established role as the UK's ATM expert, the Guild is concerned that privatisation will eradicate some or all of what we would consider to be essential development capability within NATS, the loss of which could have serious implications for the UK's ATM capabilities in the future.

  NATS currently has a Safety Management System (SMS), whose level is considerably higher than that required by the Safety Regulator. While still remaining at or above the minimum mandated requirement, will this level be allowed to fall with the effect of reducing costs and increasing shareholders' returns?

  Much of the success of NATS in the past has stemmed from the close relationships that existed between the civil and military in the joint partnership. A "privatised" NATS would make civil/military co-ordination more difficult to achieve particularly when dealing with flexible airspace. It remains in the national interests of security and aviation safety that the current military/civil partnership remains in being and is not separated as a result of privatisation.

  To summarise, GATCO believes that the proposed public-private partnership for NATS is fundamentally flawed in its present form.

  We now comment on the specific areas mentioned by the Transport Sub-committee.

  The Guild is concerned about reports regarding availability of air traffic controllers in the numbers required to meet the operational requirement of Swanwick. If Swanwick were to open with less than the numbers required, the Guild would need assurances that safety would not be compromised.

  The Guild is concerned that the Operational Conversion Training (OCT) required by air traffic controllers before the opening of Swanwick, will result in a shortfall of controllers of between 15 per cent and 25 per cent at the London Air Traffic Control Centre (LATCC), with significant flow control measures being necessary. With air traffic movements increasing at 7 per cent per annum this will undoubtedly place an increasing workload and associated stress on the air traffic controllers concerned.

  The Guild has expressed concern about the system failures at the London Air Traffic Control Centre (LATCC) this summer. The Guild believes that the National Air Traffic Services conducted its own inquiry into the failures and a report was produced.

  The Guild believes that safety was compromised by the system failures.

  The Guild compliments the controllers and support staff involved for their skill when confronted with such failures.

  In summary, the Guild is concerned about a number of areas involving the National Air Traffic Services and will concentrate its comments on those aspects involving safety.

  The Guild will be very willing to provide oral evidence to the Transport Sub-committee when appropriate.

Richard Dawson


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