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Behind the Scenes UK Air Traffic Control

It’s a century since the birth of UK air traffic control, and despite technological leaps humans are still the key to safe flight, discovers Joanna Booth.

Given the serried ranks of screens that fill the operations room at Swanwick air traffic control centre, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a place where computers call the shots.

But despite appearances, human air traffic controllers aren’t likely to be replaced by AI counterparts any time soon, Richard Taylor tells me. As deputy operations supervisor at NATS Swanwick, the Hampshire base for air traffic control operations in England and Wales, he’s only too aware of both the benefits and the limitations of technology.

“Lots of technological tools exist to help us improve safety, capacity and efficiency,” he says, “but we’ll always need the human element. Technology can help us make the right choices, but decisions are still made by air traffic controllers.” In fact, it was only last year that pens and paper were retired from the London Terminal Control Centre at Swanwick, where some of the world’s most complicated airspace is managed. “Each aircraft was represented by a paper strip in a holder an inch wide and six inches long,” Richard explains. Details including altitude and speed were recorded manually and the holders moved through boards representing air space sectors.

Now a more accurate and efficient electronic system is used to record and share this information, but all decisions are still made by humans, not machines. And although airports themselves close, airspace is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, so air traffic controllers work shifts to keep the skies under constant observation.

NATS air traffic controllers handle more than 2.5 million flights over the UK each year, ensuring each tracks a safe course through our skies via a network of corridors. Traffic flows are minutely managed in advance, but adverse weather, sick passengers and leftfield hitches like Gatwick’s Christmas drone can require wholesale re-routing.

“Believe it or not, few delays originate in the UK,” Richard says. “Most come from outside, and we’re impacted. And UK delays are almost all due to weather.”

Yes, it seems that flying through British skies – like British small talk – is all about the weather. “Fog, snow, and heavy thunder give us challenging days,” explains Richard. “The Met Office has a permanent presence at Swanwick and its forecasts help us anticipate the opening and closing of runways. We can be looking at a mass diversion scenario if an airport closes – planes are on their way and we need to find somewhere else for them to go.”

Even less predictable – and so even more challenging – are the rare non-weather related events that affect our airports, from the recent drone closure of Gatwick and the Icelandic volcanic eruption of 2010 to the full North Atlantic skies shutdown following the September 11 attacks.

“Essentially anything that hadn’t made it halfway across was turned around; UK airports were already full, and we had to find some bit of tarmac to get everyone down,” Richard remembers.

When it comes to selecting individuals cool-headed enough to take on these types of challenge, NATS uses psychometric testing rather than requiring any particular qualifications. Want to be an air traffic controller? You’ll need good decision making and problem solving skills, to be confident but not arrogant, work well in a team, and be comfortable under pressure.

A youth spent in the Air Cadets set Richard himself on course for a career in flight, and he joined NATS as an air traffic controller in 2001. “But our recruits come from all walks of life,” says Richard. “A certain percentage are aviation geeks, but there’s a huge breadth of experience. Our most recent trainee is a qualified chiropractor.”

A century after air traffic control first took flight in the UK, new changes, challenges and computers are set to transform the way Richard and his team work.

London City Airport is gearing up to have the UK’s first virtual tower, with its flights controlled from a room at Swanwick instead of on site in Docklands. Satellite air traffic surveillance currently in development could deliver not only increased safety benefits, but also a quantum leap in capacity over the North Atlantic and beyond.

But the advance most likely to gladden the hearts of passengers like you and me is a system to smooth descents into airports. “A continuous climb and descent uses less fuel,” says Richard. “Holding is the most inefficient part of the flight.” Lower carbon emissions are undoubtedly great news, but all I can think about is less time spent in an interminable circle over Heathrow, when all you want to do is get home.

And what of the big political question hanging over the UK? Richard doesn’t foresee Brexit creating any problems from an air traffic control perspective. Whatever happens between Westminster and Brussels, there’s no benefit to either side unplugging from the collaborative way we manage the skies. “Will air traffic drop off in the event of Brexit? I don’t know,” Richard says. “But when it comes to what we do here at Swanwick, it’ll be business as usual.”