BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: UK
Front Page 
Northern Ireland 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Monday, 8 May, 2000, 16:26 GMT 17:26 UK
Pushing tin - inside the control tower
Gatwick Airport
Air traffic control: "Safety first service"
As the controversial bill to part-privatise Britain's air traffic control returns to the Commons, BBC News Online's Paul Clabburn looks at the lives of those in the control tower.

As more and more aircraft fill the skies, the stresses on air traffic controllers have never been greater.

"We are under more continuous pressure than in the past and you can be left feeling that you're working at full capacity," says Bob Neville, a veteran of more than 20 years in air traffic control.

"But in a safety first service like ours, you like to feel that you have something up your sleeve in case there's a Mayday call and somebody has to land quickly," he says.

Don't get me wrong, it's very rarely unsafe

Bob Neville, Air Traffic Control Officer

"Don't get me wrong, it's very rarely unsafe but with the increase in aircraft traffic, we are fully stretched to keep it safe.

"Because of the way we deal with the problem, by breaking down the air space into small areas, we have to specialise a lot more than previously. This leads to a greater overall demand for controllers which we're having difficulty in meeting.

"I'd say we've got to a stage now where air traffic has to be continuously managed to protect the controllers and therefore the public. Aircraft have to stay on the ground until it is safe to fly."
Jumbo landing
The approach to Heathrow

Now 51, Bob works at the Air Traffic Control Centre in West Drayton. Aircraft flying across England and Wales - including the world's busiest airport for international passengers, Heathrow - are controlled from there.

He works as an approach radar controller, guiding planes into and out of the "stacks" used to hold aircraft in the sky as they wait for a landing slot.

On average, 40 planes an hour land at Heathrow and, he says: "Like buses coming along in bunches, you have to stream them the right distance apart as they come into land..

Bob Neville
Age: 51
Job: Air Traffic Control Officer
Salary: 58,000 per year
Union: IPMS

"You can be responsible for up to a dozen planes at a time but if they're in a holding pattern, that can be relatively easy to cope with. Once they start descending it can become more difficult as we interweave them."

He says the proposed part privatisation of the national air traffic control system does concern him: "If it happens we will have to work very closely with National Air Traffic Services and their new partner - whoever that may be - in order to promote our concerns about safety.


"There will be a profit motive and that raises all sorts of safety issues. The anti-privatisation campaign will continue until we are finally privatised or the Government sees sense. Whatever happens, we will continue to work hard to protect the interests of the controllers and the travelling public."

Bob, who speaks as a union representative for the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists, feels a less publicised problem - the lack of new air traffic controllers - is posing as big a difficulty as the increased volume of work.
Plane landing
Heathrow: Busiest international airport

"It's not just here, it's a Europe-wide problem, if not a worldwide one. Now some countries, in both Europe and the Middle East, have offered big salaries to try to attract staff.

"It's anticipated the situation may get easier when Europe has a common system of air traffic control qualification - but I doubt it personally. In theory a properly qualified person could work anywhere within Europe. At the moment it's very fragmented.


"Our biggest problem though is finding people with the right aptitude. I suppose you could say that about any job but there are particular qualities you need for this.

"You have to be somebody who doesn't panic, who likes an adrenaline rush every now and then but who can work in a very structured environment as a good team member.

"A lot of people who join are well qualified and do well at the theory stage. But they see it as a short-term job or stepping stone to something else. Once the stresses and strains of everyday control work and training come into play, they don't have the required dedication and we lose them."

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
See also:

01 May 00 | UK Politics
Prescott bid to avert air traffic revolt
Links to more UK stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more UK stories