Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence



Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)

MR CHRIS GIBSON-SMITH AND MR RICHARD EVERITT

WEDNESDAY 1 MAY 2002

  40. But the reality is that you had at least two major stoppages on two different days which caused considerable difficulty.
  (Mr Everitt) Could I stress that they were not Swanwick stoppages. They were problems with the flight data processor in West Drayton. They resulted from a particular set of circumstances, involving flights which came into our air space twice. They came in over Scotland, went into Irish air space and then went back into air space in the south-west and there were amendments to those flights. We have put in a fix for that problem. That was being tested when we had the problem on 10 April, and the fix was put in on the night of the 12, and all indications are that it is working well. But I would not pretend for one minute that the flight data processor is not a key issue so far as I am concerned and so far as NATS is concerned. It is a piece of software which we re-hosted on new hardware last year, but is software which is 20 or so years old—also used, incidentally by the Americans still today—and we have a very high-powered team, both internally and externally using it.

  41. We have been here before, have we not, Mr Everitt?
  (Mr Everitt) Yes, I know we have.

  42. What timescale are you suggesting to us now for things, including the re-writing of the fonts?
  (Mr Everitt) As I said to you, on fonts, we know what we want to do. We are going to prototype the work in conjunction with the trade unions.

  43. Do you have an idea of the time it will take?
  (Mr Everitt) What we will then have to decide—because you do not just change fonts on safety-critical software.

  44. I understand that, and we have had all this problem with software before. Can you give me some idea of the timescale?
  (Mr Everitt) Once we know what will be involved in changing that software —

  45. So you do not know that yet?
  (Mr Everitt) No. We are working through what is involved. We then have to have a software build on the system. There are a series of software builds, not only in relation to fonts but in relation to other things.

  46. So there are further problems?
  (Mr Everitt) No, there are not further problems. This is a dynamic system in Swanwick, like another software system is dynamic in this area. Changes are made to it quite regularly on a cycle, and we will choose where we fit that in the cycle through the working group that we have.

Andrew Bennett

  47. Originally, many years ago, a set of specifications were drawn up for what it could achieve.
  (Mr Everitt) Yes.

  48. What percentage of those original specifications have now been achieved?
  (Mr Everitt) I cannot answer you that question, and I do not think anyone could, in percentage terms. What I can tell you is that this system has a much higher degree of automation in terms of the automation of aircraft between sectors than any other system we operate, and I think most others operate.

  49. There was a set of specifications set out. This was what was going to be achieved. Of the things that were going to be achieved, some were to be achieved when it went into operation, some were to be achieved thereafter. How many have now been achieved?
  (Mr Everitt) I cannot answer that question. I will certainly look at it. We have plans to make changes to that system in terms of additional sectors. We have done a huge amount of work on that recently. In time—probably two years—will come the elimination of paper strips, and there will be other tools to be added to the system to assist controllers. This is a tremendous technical achievement.

  50. Is it a tremendous technical achievement?
  (Mr Everitt) Yes, it is.

  51. We do not now know how close it got to the specifications, do we?
  (Mr Everitt) We certainly know how close it got to what we wanted it to do, and it does those things which we designed it to do as of 27 January. What I do not have is a list of the original specifications in 1991 and what the output specifications are today. All I can tell you though is that it is a highly automated system, and it has been very robust since it started operation.

  52. Does it have the capacity to expand that was originally intended?
  (Mr Everitt) We have every indication that it has considerable capacity to expand. We started off, as you know, at a much lower level of traffic throughput than we were taking at West Drayton on the day before, as it were, and we slowly built that up to 100 per cent, which we got to before Easter, which was exactly what we designed it to do, and we are now beginning to understand that there is additional incremental capacity in there. There is also considerable capacity for additional sectors.

Chairman

  53. At the risk of being a bore, Mr Everitt, can I quote to you from one of our previous reports? It says, "Falling back on manual systems is no longer an adequate response."
  (Mr Everitt) We have a process if we have a problem, which we did on 27 March and indeed on 10 April, to fall back to manual operation. That is what we did. We did it in a very controlled way, and fully in accordance with the processes agreed by our independent safety regulator.

Miss McIntosh

  54. Without detracting from the severity of the events of 11 September, do you have evidence that receipts were down for perhaps the six- or twelve-month period before that?
  (Mr Everitt) We think, in terms of revenues, our revenue for this year was about 55 million less than we had anticipated, probably just over 40 million of that post 11 September, and about 15 million in the summer period, which ran through to the end of October. So the bulk of that was in the summer period, due primarily of course to Foot and Mouth problems.

  55. Have you had any discussions with the IATA slot allocators on their view of the upturn in the market forecast?
  (Mr Everitt) We are very fortunate in that we have the Secretary-General of IATA on our Board, but not only at that level, also at the working level, we have close liaison with IATA on our forecasts, and also with BATA, British Airways and BAA. As I indicated earlier, we produced a base case forecast in October, and so far we are tracking that very closely.

  56. Is there any evidence that airlines are using smaller planes or less frequencies?
  (Mr Everitt) I think you have seen with the strategy of British Airways that they are using overall smaller planes, so the North Atlantic, for example, is even more now a 777 operation compared with a 747 operation—747s are worth quite considerably more to us than 777s—and indeed, we have been helped this winter by the growth in low-cost, but of course, they bring less revenues to us.

  57. Are you able to put a date on when you think you will recover from the events of 11 September?
  (Mr Everitt) We do not think we will be back on track until winter of next year, ie winter 2003-04, and probably late in that winter. We will not actually go up to the absolute levels. We will probably track around five per cent under that, but we should get back to a more normal growth rate.

  58. You will have seen adverse comments in the press from the low-cost carriers on what the impact will be if you put your charges up. Would you rebut those?
  (Mr Everitt) Yes, I think I would, on these grounds: charges in Europe generally have gone up 13 per cent as of April. Our charges went down by just under one per cent as of January.

Chairman

  59. You were starting from a comparable base, were you?
  (Mr Everitt) I do not know what a comparable base is, Madam Chairman. We do not have a standard charge in Europe, but our charges, had we been under the previous system, would certainly have gone up by that sort of number. That is an average number in Europe of 13 per cent. In some countries charges have gone up by as much as 14 per cent.

 


 
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