As regular readers may know, I used to work as an air traffic controller and many of my friends still do. It has regularly been in the news about how airlines such as British Airways, Virgin and now easyJet are making large numbers of employees redundant. However, we rarely hear anything about air traffic controllers. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at what is happening with ATC currently.
Usually, ATC is thriving and an essential service to the UK for our economy as a whole, not just the aviation sector.
You may not be aware, but the UK Air Traffic Control is not government-owned. NATS is a public-private partnership between the Airline Group, which holds 42%, NATS staff who hold 5%, UK airport operator LHR Airports Limited with 4%, and the government which holds 49%, and a golden share. You would hope that the government would view this as an essential service and provide funding, but technically NATS could go bankrupt. As one of the only privatised ATC providers in Europe, NATS are especially vulnerable as they have shareholders to answer to (whose motivations are obviously commercial) and do not have the Government standing behind as a source of funds of last resort.
Air traffic is down currently about 85-91% on last year. With very few passenger flights, most flights are either repatriation or cargo. Controllers describe the situation as like working a permanent night shift. In some ways, this is fortunate as it allows controllers to social distance at work. Usually, when it is busy they work in teams of two and it would be very difficult to social distance with the current technology in that setup. When traffic does increase there is uncertainty about how ATC, in general, can scale up their operations whilst maintaining social distancing.
It was hoped that June would see an increase in traffic but the lack of joined-up thinking in the government has now led to the quarantine announcement which is likely to hugely hamper every airline’s attempts to get back to a decent schedule.
All of this means that the en-route side of air traffic control has basically now got no income. (En-route or Area Control is the air traffic control service provided for aircraft in between airports across the whole of the UK). The reason for the lack of income is that EUROCONTROL Member States (which the UK remains a member of) have agreed on enabling airlines to defer the payment of up to €1.1 billion of air traffic control fees. Therefore route charges are not being paid and Eurocontrol is trying to secure funding via a loan to pay air traffic providers some of what they are owed. But this will not be all of it, and obviously, with reduced traffic, it won’t be anywhere near enough to cover the operating costs.
NATS Services and the other companies that provide UK tower and approach services in the UK are obviously suffering too. Airports are in a serious financial predicament and of course, they are all struggling to pay their ATC costs. This is a different sort of relationship to en-route as they can be run by any company, not just NATS. So as customers, airports are all wanting discounts.
ATC everywhere is making huge use of the government’s furlough scheme, with some ATC providers having furloughed some of their staff for the foreseeable future, potentially for as long as the scheme runs.
The Air Traffic Controllers’ Union Prospect has responded to the crisis by launching a campaign to have NATS renationalised, in the form of a Government-owned corporation, in the same vein as Network Rail. This would give NATS the option of going to the government as a source of last-resort funds should they need to. This would have the result of making it a publicly owned company that would make it safe as a going concern.
Prospect are also lobbying for an Airport Capacity Retention Scheme, whereby the government make funds readily available to Airport operators to cover their fixed costs whilst their revenue streams are virtually non-existent.
Last week NATS declared that they are giving notice on the agreement that governs controllers redundancy terms, stating that they are too expensive. They did this without union consultation. As the notice period is 12 months, controllers are worried that in 12 months, the company will undertake sweeping redundancies on new terms, yet to be negotiated. Controllers are terrified for their livelihoods, particularly, because redundancy means as a controller it will often mean that you will never work in your chosen career again and you are qualified to do little else.
Controllers train for many years to qualify for the job and only around 1% of applicants make it through to qualify. En-route controllers can only work for NATS in the UK meaning if they are made redundant they would have to try and seek employment abroad. This is pretty difficult as many countries will not take applicants from other countries. In a single shift, a controller will be responsible for more lives than many doctors in their entire career.
Hopefully, the government will start pulling its response to the aviation industry together in a much better way, as so far it has been woefully inadequate and piecemeal in its approach.
If you enjoyed this article and want to find out more about what it is like to be an air traffic controller, you can have a read of my Forbes article.
An air traffic controller stares in confusion at his screen, while his colleagues start shouting instructions at him and running over to watch the unfolding situation. Just another day for an air traffic controller in what is called the most stressful job in the world?