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Nats should be embarrassed over cancellation of 164 flights at Gatwick | Nils Pratley

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In the competitive field of infrastructure shambles, cancelled flights at Gatwick are an also-ran. All the same, the embarrassment factor ought to be acute. How can a shortage of staff in the air traffic controllers – we are talking about as few as 10 individuals off sick – mean the UK’s second largest airport has to ground 164 flights this week? Where is the slack in the system? Where is the backup?

The superficial explanation from Nats, the company running the control tower at the West Sussex airport, is easy enough to follow. “With 30% of tower staff unavailable for a variety of medical reasons including Covid, we cannot manage the number of flights that were originally planned for this week,” it says. Thus capacity will be capped this week at 800 arrivals or departures a day.

Nats is training new operatives but “even an experienced air traffic controller takes at least nine months to qualify at Gatwick, and very few are able to do so, as Gatwick is such a busy and complex air traffic environment”.

Well, OK, the safe management of aircraft is obviously an important and difficult job, and one can understand why controllers can’t be switched from other airports. But isn’t the mission-critical nature of the role also a reason to ensure you have standby staff and then standbys to the standbys, just in case?

Nats won the contract at Gatwick two years ago and had 12 months to prepare before starting work last October. It won’t say how many Gatwick-based controllers it employs, pleading “commercial confidentiality”, but the number is understood to be about 30. A 30% unavailability rate, then, implies nine or 10 people. That hardly seems an unimaginable possibility. Covid infections are an everyday occurrence these days. Even plain-vanilla flu can spread among staff working in close proximity.

The airlines are understandably infuriated. Cancellations cost them money and Monday’s move came after weeks of on-off on-the-day disruption caused by Nats’s staff shortages. A capacity reset for a week makes short-term sense, everybody seems to agree, but Gatwick’s “very frustrated” chief executive, Stewart Wingate, should be asking why he accepted Nats’s previous assurances that it was resourced to deal with demand. Gatwick is the customer in the relationship and can demand details.

The main questions, though, are obviously for Nats, whose stock is not high after the national systems failure in August that was blamed on a single piece of rogue data in a flight plan filed by an unnamed airline. The Gatwick episode is unrelated but also looks worse in that it is easier to understand: it comes down to the day job of having trained staff in position.

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Nats made a pre-tax profit of £148m last year and its chief executive, Martin Rolfe, boasted in the annual report about how, after completing “a smooth transition” at Gatwick, the operator had been improving service resilience. “An important first step was a plan to train and recruit new and experienced controllers, which is well under way” he said. Not under way enough, it turns out. That passage will need a rewrite in next year’s report. So will the £836,000 that Rolfe received in incentive bonuses.


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