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Thursday, 18 April, 2002, 11:35 GMT 12:35 UK
Safety fears at air traffic centre
Swanwick air traffic control centre
The HSE stepped in after complaints from controllers
Computer screens at a new air traffic control centre have such small text controllers cannot read flight details clearly, the BBC has learned.

Controllers at the Swanwick centre have complained that the problem is so acute, they were having difficulty distinguishing the numbers 0, 8 and 6.

A leaked Health And Safety Executive (HSE) report into the centre, which controls flights across England and Wales, said the text was at the "limits of readability".

But sources have told BBC News the HSE inspectors - called in by employees - relied on measurements of the characters provided by Swanwick managers, and had not measured the text themselves.

The sources said the actual character sizes were "substantially below" the legal minimum and made working at the new computer terminals very difficult.

The HSE has now written to managers at National Air Traffic Services (Nats) to ask if the measurements were accurate.

'Safety unaffected'

Nats has insisted the problem does not affect the safety of aircraft, and applied only to the controllers' working conditions.

But angry controllers say their poor work environment could easily lead to safety lapses.

In its report the HSE also said the design of computer screens and keyboards at the 623m showpiece centre could make controllers more prone to errors and fatigue.

The confidential document sent to Nats concluded the computers used by the controllers breached regulations on display screen equipment.

Apart from the problem with the font size of most of the flight data, keyboard and mouse designs could also cause controllers neck, back and arm problems.

Nats setback

Nats says it was examining the issues raised.

Swanwick controls most of the 200,000 square miles (518,000 square kilometres) of airspace across England and Wales.

The centre was dogged by software problems before it opened six years late in January.

The report is also a further setback for the recently-privatised Nats, which has had to receive a 30m bail-out from the government after running into financial difficulties following the events of 11 September.

See also:

10 Apr 02 | UK
Q&A: Air traffic glitch
25 Jul 01 | Trouble in the air
Pushing tin in the tower
21 Feb 02 | Business
Flight delays fall
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