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


Examination of witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)

WEDNESDAY 19 NOVEMBER 1997

MR MALCOLM ARGENT, CBE AND MR BILL SEMPLE

  20.  So it is capacity driven rather than aspirational?
  (Mr Semple)  Yes, it is absolutely capacity driven. When you say "capacity driven" it is driven by the needs to meet the customers' requirements. We have customers to satisfy and we are driven to meet their requirements.

  21.  One last question, in terms of reaching the decision, when you originally decided to move from a one-centre strategy to a two-centre strategy, what consultation did you take out, both with your primary customers, the airlines, and with the other people in the aviation centres? The employees and the centre at Manchester?
  (Mr Semple)  I think, looking back, now we wish we had done more consultation, but we thought at the time we were doing quite well. Although we did as part of the planning scenario, we never started off with a one-centre strategy. The minimum we got down to was two. Once we get the New En Route Centre into operation, certainly for a period of time we will have four air traffic control centres in the United Kingdom. We have a strategy to go down to two. We think that we can meet all of the United Kingdom's en route and terminal traffic demands with two en route centres. We put together a very comprehensive plan for doing it and we shared it with the airlines. We shared it with the trade unions and we shared it with the staff. As I say, I think with the benefit of hindsight we might have done more earlier. It is certainly a lesson that I have learned and I do not intend to repeat. As you are probably aware, I have already put in place at NATS a very comprehensive consultation process that will remedy some of the mistakes that we may possibly have made in the past.

Chairman

  22.  What is the morale like in NATS at the moment?
  (Mr Semple)  I think the morale is reasonably good. Our air traffic controllers have done an absolutely outstanding job this summer, all of our staff, and I do not just mean all the air traffic controllers at the London centre but right across the country. They have coped this summer with very large traffic loads. They have coped with that very well. So because air traffic controllers like doing that, the morale generally is quite good. At London Air Traffic Control centre, of course, I have created a certain amount of concern; a certain amount of instability because of the uncertainty about the New En Route Centre. I understand that. We are trying to deal with that. But all in all we are putting packages in place. We are talking to the trade unions. I am going down tomorrow to talk to the staff again. All in all, considering that it is the end of a pretty tough summer, the morale in the organisation is reasonable.

  23.  So you have not got large numbers of people applying to move elsewhere or going, or looking for another job?
  (Mr Semple)  We have a number of people applying to go, particularly to Eurocontrol.

  24.  What is your normal wastage rate?
  (Mr Semple)  Our normal wastage rate of controllers is round about 1 per cent.

  25.  What is it about this year?
  (Mr Semple)  It is about the same.

  26.  Will that be the same next year?
  (Mr Semple)  I would say so. Chairman:  Thank you. Mr Forsythe.

Mr Forsythe

  27.  If I can take you back to the delays, you gave us a general reply on what the cause of the delays were; whether it was air traffic or whether it was runway space. Could you give us a percentage of what the delays were with air traffic control and the percentage due to the lack of space.
  (Mr Semple)  I can tell you what the delays were in terms of air traffic control due to airspace restrictions over the last year. There is a set of figures which we use. If you take the total amount of delay we created in the airspace over the last year and you divide that by the total number of aeroplanes, then the delay per aircraft movement is one minute. That is one set of numbers. In that total number of aeroplanes you can then subdivide them. A number of those aeroplanes are subject to regulation. In other words, they are flying on routes which we have to restrict. Of all these aeroplanes that are subject to regulation, the total delay that they got, divided by the number of aeroplanes that come into that category, is about 7 and a half minutes. Of all the aeroplanes that were regulated, the average delay was 7 and a half minutes. Of those aeroplanes that are delayed, if you measure the number of aeroplanes that are delayed by the amount of delay, then the average delay per delayed aircraft this year has been about 15 minutes. So all the aircraft that we delay due to airspace restrictions, then the average delay for those aircraft is about 15 minutes; but we only delay in this country, of all the flights which are operating in and out of this country, less than 10 per cent of the aircraft is delayed.

  28.  What was the reason for the delay?
  (Mr Semple)  Airspace congestion. We impose delays on the airlines. We call it traffic management or flow control but we impose those delays to keep the system operating safely. We understand the pressures that air traffic controllers are under with a lot of aeroplanes. We agree what the flow of traffic through a given sector should be at any one time. That is the restriction. The delays that we impose on the system are there purely to keep the system operating at a safe level. That is what they are for.
  (Mr Argent)  I think this was partly behind your question as to the extent that ATC delays are a part of the totality.

  29.  Air traffic control always gets the blame.
  (Mr Argent)  You are absolutely right. You have heard it on aeroplanes many times, I am sure. But the figure is actually 20 per cent; less than 20 per cent is actually due to air traffic control. The rest is due to all the reasons you are already familiar with.

  30.  The centres you are speaking about there, in your programme you have for bringing in the New Centre, you talk about training. Could training not have been going ahead prior to the time that you are talking about? You have to wait?
  (Mr Semple)  No, you cannot do that for air traffic controllers. For air traffic controllers to operate in a sector, in an operating position, they have to be what we call "validated". To do that they must operate on the actual system, on the equipment that they are going to use. So we have to wait until we have actually got it there. That is what our training and development unit is for. It is an exact replica, as some of you will have seen. It is an exact replica of the operational system. We will train the controllers in there when we have the system ready. Then they will be validated to operate on the operational system.

  31.  You are talking about running two systems. You are going to have a new system in use, the simulator which is being run by air traffic controllers. Then you have the present system which is still being run by air traffic controllers. Does that mean that you require to bring in more air traffic controllers?
  (Mr Semple)  Yes.

  32.  And what will happen to them after this system is running?
  (Mr Semple)  At the moment we have got, in terms of numbers, between 50 and 60—the other day it was 58—more controllers in the London system than we need to run the London system right now. That pool of controllers are the ones that we are using for doing the simulation training. That will be the pool of controllers which will give us the flexibility to take some out of the operational positions, and take them for training and fill the operational positions. We have a float built into the system of about 60 controllers which we can use for the transition flexibly. What will happen to them when we get operational at the new Centre is that some of them will retire. Some of them will be quite pleased to retire! But I am quite sure by then that the demand for air traffic controllers will still be rising and that there will be positions for them to operate.

  33.  Just finally, Chairman, having been in business, if I had been buying a system or putting in a system which gave me a lot of trouble, I would have gone away from that particular firm, with that particular system, for a similar type of job, unless I was happy and satisfied with the particular system. Could I ask you why then, in those circumstances, the same firm is being considered for the second centre?
  (Mr Semple)  There is a whole range of reasons.

  34.  Just before you answer, could I add to that. Supposing the troubles you have in what is going to be the new system become apparent in the second centre because of the same software? In that sort of situation what safeguard have you that both centres will not go down in the same way at the same time?
  (Mr Semple)  The centres in that respect are not totally connected. Yes, there is a risk that you would run into exactly the same software bug at both centres at exactly the same time, but I think you can calculate to yourself that the odds of doing that are very remote.

  35.  It only needs to happen once.
  (Mr Semple)  We mitigate against those odds if we possibly can. You ask me why we went for the same system. We are confident in this system. We think it is a good system. It has had its problems but it is very complex and we would have expected that. We have invested a lot of time in this system so as a company we understand this system. We like it. It will do what we want. At the same time, we made the decision on which contractor to have. Why did we not go for another system? Amongst other reasons there was not another system anywhere in the world which was at the same stage of development as this one, and there still is not. There is still not a big enough system sufficiently well advanced anywhere around that we know will do the job we want. The nearest contender to this system, in fact, had only 60 per cent of the functionality. It did only 60 per cent of the things that we need the system to do. That is one of the reasons why we chose this system.

Mr Bennett

  36.  May I go back to one of your answers to the Chairman at the beginning. This 40 per cent extra capacity, you were a bit vague as to when that is going to be achieved. I assume it is not going to be achieved in 1999 when it opens.
  (Mr Semple)  I would be very surprised if the 40 per cent is achieved then. I think the 40 per cent is predicated on the basis that the basic operational concept of the system can be developed. What number we get when we first go in I do not know, and I do not know how to measure that. I only have my experience to go by with the terminal control system that we put in at London, where we said it had 30 per cent more capacity as a system than the previous one. We put it in. We did not have to complete the exercise. There were five stages in the terminal control function. We only had to complete four of them. We put it in with new systems, new equipment, new operating procedures, and we got a situation from where the London Terminal Control area was very close to maximum utilisation, to a system where there was a lot of extra capacity in the London terminal control system.

  37.  So you are hoping, but you are not really sure?
  (Mr Semple)  No, we know. We know by experience that we will get more capacity. I cannot put a number on it. I wish I could put a number on it for you but I cannot.

  38.  So by the summer of 2000 will there be more capacity?
  (Mr Semple)  Yes.

  39.  How is that target of 40 per cent going to be achieved?
  (Mr Semple)  It will be achieved through a number of ways. One: it will be achieved through the familiarisation that we will get of operating it. Once we get in and operate it we will find—and the controllers will help us to find—ways in which the system can be improved, and we will introduce those. We will be able to introduce those into this system because it gives us the basic platform on which we can build. We can put modern ATC aids on to that system. We cannot put them into the existing system. The existing system will not cope with the conflict predictors that we need, with the control systems which we need in the future. We can in the New En Route Centre. We will do that progressively as we get it up and running.


 
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