Individual skill remains heart of industry, says Thomas Kirkhope
Aviation is still a new industry. If you subscribe to the belief that the Wright Brothers pioneered “heavier than air” flight on 17 December, 1903, then it was only 66 short years later that the first supersonic passenger aircraft took to the air. A chasm of technology separated the two events, but only a brief period in history.
Air traffic control (ATC) has been on a similar evolution since the use of red and green flags on a field in Missouri in 1929 – although, some would argue, not at supersonic speed.
Now, more than ever, change on an ever-increasing scale is having an impact on the world of air traffic management, not just in terms of the delivery of technology, but also regarding the increasing impact of globalisation. ATC needs to be intelligent enough to predict these evolving market forces and also agile enough to respond to them quickly and effectively.
Historically, the public image of an air traffic controller may have been the marshal guiding an aircraft on to a stand at an airport with “table tennis bats” or, it may have been a dark, smoke-filled room where critical decisions drive egotists to the limit of their frayed capability. Most of these images are derived from post-war cinema and are not truly representative of the ATC world we now know.
A highly professional, regimented network
Recent fly-on-the-wall documentaries, based at London Heathrow Airport for example, have shown ATC to be a highly professional, regimented network supported by a larger foundation of approach control units and control centres, all playing their part in ensuring that people depart and arrive safely at their destination with minimal delay.
In stark contrast to the Hollywood or Pinewood imagery, operations rooms are not dark or smoke-filled. Controllers are equipped with the tools, training and environment to ensure a safe service is well within their capability and can be provided at all times.
Those controllers, engineers and supporting staff at the Air Traffic Control Centre at Prestwick and those installed at its sister centre at Swanwick on the south coast of England, sit in large, light, air-conditioned operations rooms monitoring, the safe flow of more than two million flights a year through the airspace above the UK and North Atlantic. Tools to assist staff in their tasks continue to be developed, but even today, with technological advancements at an all-time high, the reliance on the skill of an individual pilot or controller is still at the centre of the service that is provided.
Changes in technology in recent years have introduced aircraft conformance tools and enhanced conflict detection and, in alliance, with a positive, mature culture of safety, have driven Nats to improve on its own safety performance year on year since a 51 per cent stake of Nats was sold in a public private partnership in 2001.
More control on the flight deck
Changes will no doubt continue apace with the introduction of new controlling tools, which will allow more control on the flight deck, and through 4D trajectories (time, speed, height and route) that will move controlling from the tradition of tactical intervention to a planning and monitoring role. All of this is required to sustain the current levels of safety and service against a backdrop of air traffic growth.
The key to success will be to introduce change in partnership rather than in isolation – a partnership with our people at the heart and through collaboration and alliances with the wider industry. This has been proven through the partnerships and alliances that Nats has forged in 30-plus countries worldwide.
Aviation, by its very nature cannot afford to be parochial. It is a truly international industry and, as a consequence, is subject to environmental and economic pressures throughout Europe and beyond.
In one dimension, it needs to provide a cost-efficient service, in another it needs to reduce its impact on the environment and in a third it needs to build and develop its capability to cope with increasing demands coming from growing economies, such as the Middle and Far East.
One option might be to close the windows and doors or hide in shelters and let progress pass by, but Nats operates with control at its core and so letting external forces take charge of its future does not sit comfortably, and rightly so.
This challenge has never been as relevant as now as Nats neighbour, Prestwick Airport begins the process of renationalisation. To recognise the importance of aviation to Scotland and Ayrshire in particular shows tremendous insight, but to invest sufficiently in a rapidly shifting environment will take huge courage, too.
Partnerships will be the key to the success of Prestwick Airport if it is to cement its rightful place in the market.
One of Xerox Research Centre’s scientists, Alan Kay, reportedly claimed that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it” and bravery is most certainly the mother of innovation. Therefore, it is imperative that aviation industry stakeholders, such as Nats, continue to evolve and pave the way for future developments that will guarantee the continued success for all involved.
• Thomas Kirkhope is head of safety at Nats’ Prestwick Control Centre, www.nats.co.uk