Mid December, chaos erupted over the skies of the capital as a technical glitch in the NATS air traffic control system caused widespread cancelations and delays. This is not the first such glitch, almost a year to the date a similar software hiccup caused an even larger disruption. According to Strategy& partner John Potter, the issues highlight the growing reliance on IT in the airline industry, and consequently the increasing need for robust contingency plans.
NATS is a UK based air traffic control company tasked with controlling the skies over the UK. Its Air Traffic Controller centre (ATC) handle up to 2.2 million flight per year, the airspace in which they operate is one of the world’s busiest. Since its creation in 2002, the company has had considerable criticism. Major concerns have been broached following a number of glitches in its highly expensive computer systems, which arrived six years late and was twice over cost at £623 million. These glitches have led to a range of consequences for passengers, in 2013 one such glitch caused 250 flight cancellations, with a further 1,000 flights delayed. On the 12th of December last year, another glitch hit NATS’ computer system, this time causing 70 flights to be cancelled and 100,000 passengers to be affected at Heathrow with delays and cancellations at Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and London City.
The 2013 glitch occurred when engineers attempted an upgrade to the Voice Communication System (VCS), say the NATS’ report to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). The problem then affected the software on the computer control stations, such that the touch-screen system ceased to allow operators to change from night mode, in which there are 5 communications sectors controlling the upper airspace in England and Wales, to the day-time mode of 20-25 sectors. This capacity shortage, while not affecting the communications themselves, manifests itself in ATC flow restrictions being applied to affected airspace until normal operations resumed. The most recent malfunction is currently being investigated by an independent body for CAA, a press statement released by NATS discloses.
A number of commentators have questioned NATS’ track record on providing redundant contingency system as well as the wider consequences of the glitches. John Potter, Managing Partner of the London office of Strategy&, says that the air traffic industry has become heavily reliant on software: “The grounding of hundreds of scheduled flights because of a technical problem at Swanwick highlights how reliant the airline industry has become on technologies which can and do fail.” According to Potter, such disruptions bring airlines and airports under further pressure: “the industry is already hampered by slim profit margins and increasing customer service expectations. Customers will not tolerate many incidents like this one.” The consultant advises airlines and infrastructure operators to have solid contingency plans in place. “Disruptions like this remind us how important robust contingency plans are.”
Professor Ian Allison, head of the school of computing science and digital media at Robert Gordon University in Scotland, describes the failure as “'most surprising”, highlighting that such IT systems tend to have high levels of resilience built into them. “Software is written to a high level of engineering to ensure the safety of passengers.” Allison speculates that contingency plans may well have been in place, at least from an IT perspective, yet that they too may have succumbed to the glitch. “It seems to have been a major incident that caused the contingency plans to fail as well as the primary system.”
In the long term NATS says its computerisation of the ATC systems will continue to evolve, with next-generation technology being developed under the umbrella of the ‘Single European Sky’ project set to change the way ATC responds to technical problems. At the end of the decade, NATS claims that “significant investment in proven next - generation technology” will enable it to move to a “one airspace, one operation” across its ATC Centres at Swanwick and Prestwick, such that “any airspace can be controlled from anywhere”, opening up a whole range of new possibilities in dealing with events like 7th December 2013 and 12th December 2014. Whether this turns out reality, is still to be seen.