TECHKNOW: Pushing the envelope - Air traffic control

TECHKNOW: Pushing the envelope - Air traffic control - It's July and the nation takes off for sunnier climes. Or at least it tries to. The democratisation of air travel has placed increasing strain on Britain's air traffic control systems as controllers try to squeeze ever more planes into what are already the busiest skies in Europe.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It's July and the nation takes off for sunnier climes. Or at least it tries to. The democratisation of air travel has placed increasing strain on Britain's air traffic control systems as controllers try to squeeze ever more planes into what are already the busiest skies in Europe.

Since partial privatisation in 2001, the National Air Traffic Service (NATS) has had well-publicised problems with wonky computers, staffing issues and even the Health and Safety Executive. The all-new pounds 750 million Air Traffic Control centre at Swanwick, Hampshire - opened in January '02 - is expected end all that and should be handling 3 million flights a year by 2015. But the immediate problem for NATS is avoiding a repeat of last year's delays and cancellations.

THE CHALLENGE: Swanwick controls the airspace above most of England and Wales and wants to get more planes into the same amount of sky - a task that has been likened to playing chess in three dimensions on a board covering 200,000 square miles. The centre has dealt with 1.7 million flights since coming on stream, but the real test will be this year's holiday season, when upwards of 6,000 planes a day will pass through the hands of its 357 controllers.

NATS CEO Richard Everitt describes the centre's technical performance as 'robust'. So robust that he's planning staff cuts. The House of Common's Transport Select Committee disagrees, saying NATS must demonstrate 'substantially greater robustness' before proceeding with any such cuts.

THE SOLUTION: Swanwick will handle a near-doubling of traffic volume over the next 12 years, mainly by better co-ordinating take-offs and landings. A pilot's window for approach and descent can now safely be made shorter by more efficient computer tracking and data transfer. Another new feature is Automated Sector Transfer. Air traffic control is organised into geographical sectors and controllers had to notify each other by phone when a plane changed jurisdiction. This meant aircraft had to be kept well apart but notification is now done with a single mouse-click.

Sounds simple, but the scheme is one of the UK's most sophisticated-ever IT projects, having taken 10 years and involved some of the biggest names in the business, including EDS and Lockheed Martin. A pounds 127 million update of the nine radar stations across the country that feed data to Swanwick also began earlier this year. Five years late, pounds 180 million over budget, Swanwick has been criticised as another publicly funded infrastructure disaster area. But the system should last for more than 30 years, and long after all the fuss has died down generations of air travellers will be grateful for this long-overdue upgrade of the technology controlling our skies.

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