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Flight of the Navigators
In the week in which the Government is said to be considering selling its 49 per cent share in the UK’s air traffic control service, SARAH JONES gets a rare insight into the heart of the organisation.
YOU left home in time to make your flight, cleared passport control and now you’re taking off. There’s not much to do apart from read your book and look forward to the first round of the drinks trolley.
So the last thing on your mind is probably the fact that your fate – and that of thousands of others in hundreds of aircraft at that very same moment – rests in the hands of an elite bunch of people tucked away in a quiet corner of Hampshire woodland.
Responsible for the busiest and most complex airspace in the world, NATS (National Air Traffic Service) Swanwick is Europe’s largest air traffic control centre.
This is mission control for planes flying in the 200,000 square miles of controlled airspace above England and Wales.
“We are here to ensure that an aircraft gets from A to B as safely and as efficiently as possible,”
declares Simon Hocquard, operations director at the site.
This is the man who is personally responsible for commercial air traffic in this country – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. But he insists the weight of such a massive burden doesn’t give him sleepless nights, because he is so confident in his team here in Hampshire.
There are 1,500 staff at the air traffic control centre at Swanwick, and an additional 1,500 down the road at their administrative headquarters in Whiteley.
Controlling around 5,000 aircraft a day, 800 of the staff at Swanwick are air traffic controllers.
They work alongside their colleagues in Prestwick, Scotland.
Together – as the gateway to and from North America – they control 25 per cent of Europe’s air traffic despite being in charge of just 12 per cent of the continent’s airspace.
They also provide air traffic control services to 15 UK airports and Gibraltar Airport.
Last year, NATS handled some 2.1 million flights carrying around 200 million passengers. While airport staff command aircraft on the ground, as soon as they push back from the stand, air traffic control takes over.
“Aircraft in controlled UK airspace can’t climb, descend or do anything without permission from air traffic control,” says Simon. “There’s a good reason for that. It’s because there’s a lot of them in the sky and someone needs to make sure they stay safe and don’t hit each other. Safety is the cornerstone that everything revolves around here.”
With NATS’ air traffic controllers internationally renowned for their professionalism, as an organisation, they lead the world, both in terms of their expertise and technology.
Talking directly to pilots, air traffic controllers require a cool head and the ability to solve problems confidently and at lightning speed. Out of the thousands of people that apply to move traffic through the busy skies of the UK, only three per cent make the grade.
“As an air traffic controller, you can either do it or you can’t,” says the operations director. “If you haven’t got it, you never will.”
It’s all about spatial awareness according to Simon. “You have to be able to think in 3D,” he says.
And air traffic controllers have to sit an annual proficiency test and medical, to ensure they are permanently at the top of their game.
“The standard has to be absolutely right at the top at all times,” says Simon.
“They are one of the most professional groups of people I have ever come across. It takes ultimate concentration and around three years of training to get into the seat. They are one of the most intelligent workforces you will get because they have to be.”
As you would expect, such a highly skilled workforce is rewarded handsomely with qualified air traffic controllers at Swanwick earning between £60-£90,000.
Working closely with Europe (the international language of air traffic control is English), they have to monitor the entire continent to ensure no problems arise. “Traffic jams don’t happen in the sky so traffic controllers have to massage the flow to ensure there are no bottlenecks,”
Each air traffic controller has a personal licence, which means they are personally accountable for their actions.
Two separate operations are run from the futuristic offices at Swanwick – Terminal Control and Area Control. While the former controls the five major London airports and airspace over the captial, the latter controls the rest of the airspace over England and Wales and their airports. With its huge curved roof, ten tennis courts could fit inside Area Control A hive of focused activity, headphone-clad staff – who sit in front of huge banks of radar screens, maps and computer monitors – here have to ensure aircraft stay apart by five miles horizontally and 1000ft vertically.
Meanwhile Terminal Control – which moved to Hampshire from West Drayton in 2007 – is housed in a smaller room next door.
A 24-hour-a-day operation, air traffic control at Swanwick never shuts down. With sleeping facilities, restaurants and a gym on site, employees are well catered for. In the event of a power failure or emergency situation, steps have been taken to ensure that air traffic would never be threatened.
Both operation rooms are totally fireproof, all systems and software are constantly monitored and four lots of every piece of equipment is stored in the rooms below.
There are generators onsite and they even have their own power supply if the national grid disappeared.
While Swanwick is run by NATS, the Ministry of Defence runs the military’s air traffic control operation alongside their civilian colleagues from here too.
In a post 9/11 world, security at the 100-acre site built on the old Bursledon Brickworks quarries is incredibly tight for obvious reasons.
New procedures were brought in following the terrorist atrocity in New York, but Simon can’t disclose such top-secret information.
It has been nine years since the £632m facility opened in Swanwick amid much controversy. “It was over budget, late and there were some technical software issues,” he says. “We learnt an awful lot and things have changed.”
With new challenges arising all the time, last year’s ash cloud for example was “one of the most intense times in terms of air traffic,” according to Simon, so it’s fair to say life at air traffic control is never going to be dull.
But as far as passengers are concerned, they have nothing to worry about.
“Flying is a fantastic way of travelling, says Simon. “You can go long distances in short spaces of time. We have all the tools and systems to protect anyone in airspace at any one time. Sit back, have a gin and tonic and enjoy it.”