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Staff shortages, fatigue and maintaining resilience are the key challenges for air traffic controllers

Staff shortages, fatigue and maintaining resilience are the key challenges for air traffic controllers

Plane in sky near air traffic control tower

I work in the London Terminal Control part of NATS, the organisation that manages the UK air traffic control. London Terminal Control covers most of the airspace in and around London up to approximately 21000ft. The airspace roughly extends north to Birmingham and the East Midlands Airport and down to the south coast. The approach facilities for Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, London City and Northolt airports are also contained within terminal control. As the area contains some of the world’s busiest airports, this is the busiest airspace in the country, and one of the busiest in the world.

Making sure that it is managed safely and efficiently can impact everyone in the UK, most obviously as passengers flying to or connecting through a south east airport. But it also affects those who rely on goods being imported into the UK by air, as well as those living below flight paths and near airports too.

Working in NATS is all about being part of a team, there is a huge amount of camaraderie and there is lots of fun. We have a unique professional bond because, unlike other professions these days, many people stay in air traffic control right throughout their careers. We work through the Christmas holidays, the New Year’s Eves, family birthdays, school plays - all those unsociable times just to keep Britain flying.

Fatigue is real

However, there are real challenges ahead for air traffic control. There is more and more demand for air travel whilst our staffing levels continue to erode. In the summer season (April – October) we can often work the maximum allowable time all day, every day in some of the most complex airspace in the world.

The obvious consequences are fatigue – and unlike airlines and their pilots - NATS has no fatigue monitoring or reporting system. Just as no one wants a tired pilot flying their aircraft in the air, passengers should also expect they don’t have a fatigued controller directing them from the ground.

Technological changes

On top of that the day-to-day job of being in terminal control is currently undergoing its biggest change in 30 years. Until now we have used paper strips to record flight data, but we are phasing in an electronic platform. While it is good to see new technology being introduced, making sure it is deployed safely is a difficult and ambitious project due to the complexity of the operation.

Staff shortages

Finally, there are issues around staff supply. There is limited supply of suitable controllers, because of the skills and experience required, for the more demanding roles. This means that those that are mobile - some types of controller’s licences have limited freedom to change employers within the UK - can probably improve their terms and conditions by changing employers. NATS is always under pressure from the airlines to cut its costs whilst improving its service. It feels like the pressure to keep costs as low as possible will continue to prevail despite huge profits and generous dividends to shareholders.

NATS embarked on a voluntary redundancy program 4 or 5 years ago and reduced the number trainee controllers that it would train. This has contributed to the shortage of controllers we have today. The phrase ‘race to the bottom’ is often used in aviation. We have probably seen something like that in low cost airlines – are we seeing it in air traffic control?

Resilience

Resilience for an air traffic controller is about our ability to maintain our safe service when the unexpected happens, be that staff sickness, bad weather, aircraft incidents and accidents without a detrimental effect on individuals or safety.

NATS has made a business decision to operate with reduced resilience. They make no secret of it. However, the burden is inevitably placed upon the individuals to cope. It’s not a difficult equation – do more with less. The ongoing effects are fatigue, disenfranchisement and potential safety issues, as well as worse disruption to passenger’s journeys.

If passengers want safe and punctual air travel in future there must be a policy change and investment in people before it’s too late. Cheaper air travel has benefitted many but there is a limit to how cheap it can come and safety must always come first.

 

  • This piece was written by a Prospect member working in air traffic control
  • Read Prospect's aviation manifesto here.

 

 

Balihar Khalsa

Balihar Khalsa


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