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EDITIONS
 Thursday, 19 December, 2002, 10:22 GMT
Swanwick: Dogged by problems
Aircraft lining up at Heathrow airport
The latest delay has led to congestion on the tarmac
"Potentially catastrophic" problems are still plaguing the air traffic control centre at Swanick, a senior operator claims. It is one of many setbacks for the "flagship" operation since it opened almost a year ago.

The multi-million pound air traffic control centre at Swanwick in Hampshire is one of the busiest and most complex in the world.

But the centre has been dogged by problems.

In the latest, a senior air traffic controller with some 40 years experience behind him, says radio communications are cutting out erratically, with the potential to cause drastic problems.

The unnamed controller told BBC Radio 4's Today programme there had been several instances of transmissions cutting out.

Long delays

The head of the air traffic control service insisted the service was safe, but it is not the first time the new centre has come in for criticism.

There have been long delays for flights and at peak times some trans-Atlantic flights are being re-routed away from the busiest sectors to help the situation.

National Air Traffic Services (Nats) executives have denied allegations that morale is low but bosses are reported to be buying back leave time and stopping people retiring.

Managers have also admitted that they are 40 controllers short of their ideal quota.

But every month seems to throw up more headaches for the 623m centre.

In May, air traffic controllers complained that computer screen text which was "too tiny to read".

High-tech

This followed thousands of passengers being left stranded at airport terminals after a computer failure caused chaos to flight schedules.

When the "state of the art" operation in Hampshire opened in January, it was already six years overdue.

Since then things have not gone smoothly.

Swanwick - the facts
Controls 200,000 sq miles of air space
The operation room is 2,00 sq metres
Computer system tested for 650,000 hours before launch

May's disruption, which left passengers waiting up to six hours for flights, was the third in two months.

In April hundreds of flights were held up because of a technical glitch at Swanwick's support centre, in West Drayton. There had been a similar problem a fortnight earlier.

All this when Swanwick was supposed to be part of the solution, not the problem.

Plans for Swanwick were originally laid in early 1990, in response to the seemingly inexorable growth in holiday and business flights.

For years, the handling of air traffic over England and Wales had been split between two control centres, run by Nats, in West Drayton in Middlesex and Manchester.

Their job has been to deal with en-route traffic - the flights that criss-cross British airspace - as well as the planes that take-off and land at England's big airports.

Delayed passengers in June 2000
A system failure can cause chaos
But with air traffic doubling about every 15 years, and the number of in-flight near misses increasing, it was clear the existing arrangements for marshalling Britain's skies would soon be unable to cope.

The decision was taken to start from scratch. The two existing operations would be brought under one roof to form the biggest purpose-built air traffic control centre in the world. IBM was chosen to develop a bespoke computer system for it.

Although the package would be based on one that was already being developed for the United States, it meant designing new hardware and writing wholly original software.

With hindsight, says independent air traffic control expert Philip Butterworth-Hayes, this was probably the wrong tack.

First mistake

"The basic stumbling block was not to get off-the-shelf components and software. When you plan a new operation like this, you want it to be good for the next 20 to 25 years.

"But software is advancing at a tremendous pace, so it becomes obsolete every 18 months."

Demands have also changed in response to advances in surveillance technology, communications and the amount of data pilots can access from the cockpit.

Swanwick ATC centre
Nicely landscaped: The new Swanwick centre

But further problems were in the pipeline, and the promise that Swanwick would come on line in 1996 looked increasingly hard to keep.

In 1994 IBM sold the project on to another company, Loral. A year later, the Americans scrapped their Advanced Automation System that had been a template for the British design.

In 1996 it emerged there were stability problems with the newly written software. Meanwhile, the project was effectively placed in yet another set of hands as Loral was bought by Lockheed Martin.

Developments at Swanwick were becoming an embarrassment to the government, which last year part-privatised Nats, but an independent report in 1998 rejected scrapping the project.

More Swanwick facts
More than 35 air traffic controllers trained on the system
Life span expected to be 30 years
As the delay wore on, tensions developed between the competing pressures of safety and a ticking clock, says Iain Findlay, of the air traffic controllers union Prospect.

There have been many more hitches along the line. More than a year was spent clearing 1,400 bugs from the new software and taking staff off frontline duty for training on the new system threatened delays in many a departure lounge.

And at a total cost of 623m (some estimates put the figure as high as 700m) Swanwick is double its original budget.

So was it worth it?

French example

Probably not, said Mr Butterworth-Hayes, even before the latest hitch.

While the new operation will have tonnes of spare capacity to cope with the rise in air traffic, it doesn't match up to the French model.

"From day one the French realised software was the problem. They've gone for off-the-shelf software that will be updated every year. It's been introduced with fewer delays.

"There are four major air traffic improvement programmes in Europe at the moment: France, Britain, Italy and Germany. Who has been the most successful? You have to say the UK is not in the top three."

See also:

25 Jul 01 | Trouble in the air
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