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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 June, 2004, 09:03 GMT 10:03 UK
Trouble in the skies - a history
Air Traffic Controllers
Air traffic control is under-going a 1bn investment
The computer failure which grounded scores of flights is the latest in a series of difficulties faced by the country's air traffic control system.

Computer glitches, financial difficulties and a bitterly opposed privatisation have dogged the National Air Traffic Control Service.

But perhaps most significant has been the delay in moving the service to its new flagship 623m headquarters at Swanwick near Southampton.

This move from West Drayton near Heathrow, was originally set for 1996-7, but did not begin until January 2002.

And once the 800-strong Swanwick workforce moved in, a series of problems with its computer system was highlighted.

The final phase of the move, the relocation of West Drayton's 600 staff will not now be complete until 2007.

Currently air traffic is controlled by a series of interlinking computer systems controlled from Swanwick and other parts of the country.

Data transposed

In January this year the computer system at Britain's new air traffic control centre led to a near miss between passenger jets.

The mix-up at Swanwick put a jumbo jet and a Boeing on a collision course.

According to a report by the UK Airprox Board, a controller at Nats thought his instructions to the pilots in the aircraft would direct their planes away from each other.

But the opposite happened and a crash was only averted when the pilots and the air traffic controller realised data on the two planes had been transposed.

This led to the announcement that an upgraded software system would be installed in February.

On three occasions during 2000 and 2002, computer problems at the out-dated West Drayton centre led to flight delays and cancellations during the rush hour.

Massive investment

And in 2002 the unions threatened to strike in a dispute over pay and conditions.

Some staff complained that they could not read the font on the new computer screens at Swanwick - creating an obvious safety hazard.

Most recently Nats announced its chief executive Richard Everitt's contract had been terminated following discontent among shareholders.

The service said it needed someone to take charge of the next phase of its development as it embarks upon a 1bn investment.

The sacking was criticised by the union representing air traffic controllers, Prospect, which praised Mr Everitt's leadership through the troubled privatisation and the financial crisis that has gripped aviation since the 11 September terrorist attacks.

Apologising for Thursday's severe disruption Mr Everitt said the problem had been caused by a failure in the link between the old and new computer systems.

The planned 1bn investment over the next eight years will improve the reliability and contingency of the air traffic control system, he said.

Swanwick: Dogged by problems
19 Dec 02 |  UK News

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