The need for change
When we talk about busy skies, we are talking about more than 2.5 million flights passing through the UK every year. Only the United States and China have a larger aviation network than the UK, an incredible fact really given the size of airspace managed by the UK compared to many others.
“More than 370 destinations are served from our relatively small island”, explains Pete Dawson. “And traffic records are being broken almost week by week, with winter months – traditionally a quieter time for air travel –now feeling like summer months did a few years ago.
In 2017, we handled more than 2.5 million flights. Of those, almost 51% entered or left one of the airports managed by controllers at our London Terminal Control Centre.”
Keeping track of the instructions given to a pilot is a fundamental part of air traffic management. Whilst work is already underway on more advanced systems that will connect with aircraft and automatically record aircraft movements and trajectories, recording that information manually has always been an essential part of safely and efficiently managing our busy skies.
For every flight, a paper strip could have up to 10 instructions written on it. In addition, controllers might have to make up to four calls to each other to coordinate that flight as it passes through the airspace en route to its destination. All of this adds to a controller’s workload and helps define total airspace capacity, which is in part a direct result of the volume of aircraft they can be ‘working’ at any one time.
ExCDS will provide our controllers with automated flight data management information via new touch-screen controls installed in the operation. However, while it automates some processes and reduces the need for manual coordination between controllers working in different positions, it will still rely on controllers to manually input much of the information they currently write on paper strips about the instructions they’ve given to an aircraft. This increased electronic coordination is essential in order to help controllers to manage with the ever-increasing demands on the UK’s congested skies."
- Chris Edwards, Transition Manager for London Terminal Control and a former TC Air Traffic Controller
Collaborating for change: an industry-wide approach
Airlines are never going to like it if you tell them there are going to be delays, understandably, but they like it even less if you tell them there aren’t going to be delays and then there are"
- Andrew Burke, Customer Affairs Manager at NATS
“Introducing a new system like this is not something we can or would want to do in isolation”, explains Pete Dawson. “One of the things we had to do in the early stages of the project was to think about how we’d introduce this new system, what the likely impact would be on our customers and their passengers , and to then think about how we could minimise that impact as much as possible.”
One of the first decisions taken was to engage the airlines at a really early stage of the planning phase, more than 18 months in fact before the first deployment. This provided a chance to bring our customers into the planning process: “To explain why we were making the change – the rationale for introducing the new system, to brief on what we thought some of the challenges might be along the way, and to discuss possible ways we could work together to mitigate any potential disruption”, adds Dawson.
The introduction of iTEC, a separate but equally significant system used by Area Controllers, at our Prestwick Centre in 2016, had caused some unforeseen delays. The fact that this delay hadn’t been predicted made it harder for airlines to plan in advance and to mitigate the impact on their operations. “We were determined to learn the lessons from that experience”, adds Andrew Burke, “and to make sure the airlines were as involved in the planning process as they could be”.
He continues: “We wanted to have a really open, honest and mature conversation with our customers that briefed them on what was coming and to make sure they were engaged and felt part of the transition process. At the end of the day, they are our customers and the services we provide are there to enable them to transport their customers – the flying public – safely through the UK’s busy skies”.
One element of this engagement was the plan for deploying the system in to the operation. A critical part in planning for the safe introduction of EXCDS was to recognise that, despite all the training that controllers could undertake on the tool outside of the operations room, nothing can quite replicate its use in real live operations.
To recognise this, a transition plan was devised that would both provide controllers with the safety net to grow confidence using the tool in a safe way, whilst also minimising the disruption across the operation.
Chris Norsworthy, who headed the deployment of EXCDS and helped devise the transition plan: “Our Human Factors team determined that controllers using EXCDS should begin to do so managing only 80% of the traffic they would normally manage. This was deemed a safe level at which controllers would be able to safely manage the traffic levels using EXCDS in their initial few days, with the traffic levels gradually increasing first up to 90% after 10 days and then back to 100% after 20 days.”
Whilst these might sound like modest reductions, a 20% cut in traffic across the entire London Terminal Control operation would have a significant impact – causing major delays and possibly even cancellations.
“We had to find a way to avoid that scenario”, explains Norsworthy. The way this was achieved was to devise a staged transition, which broke the London Terminal Control operation down in to five sector groupings. Splitting the operation into five sector groupings gave us a few benefits. Firstly, it meant that only one fifth of the operation was operating at 80% capacity at any one time – four fifths were still at 100% capacity."
A foundation for the future
With the five transitions now complete, EXCDS is fully operational and providing the benefits we envisaged.
Pete Dawson adds: “We’re proud of how our controllers, engineers, training teams, NAV CANADA and our airline and airport customers worked together to deliver EXCDS.
Delivering change in any industry is never easy, perhaps more so in a safety critical 24/7 environment but with growth expected over the coming years we can’t rely on the technologies of the past. We need to make changes and update the tools we use and the route network to ensure that people can get to where they want to fly, in a safe and timely manner.”
Whilst no-one likes hearing there are going to be delays, the reality is that making changes to a system that is expected to be active 24/7, 365 days a year requires some compromises. The EXCDS transition showed that collaboratively, we can do a lot to try and mitigate the impact. It doesn’t mean there won’t be delays, and we always regret any disruption that is caused to our customers and the flying public, but it does show that by working together, closely and openly, we can make the changes we need to make to ensure the UK has the airspace infrastructure it needs for the years ahead.
Over the coming years we have a significant programme of change to deliver that infrastructure to meet the traffic growth that is forecast. EXCDS was one step on that journey and shows that by working together we can deliver the air traffic management environment we need for the future.