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Heathrow separation

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Heathrow separation

Old 20th Mar 2008, 17:16
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Heathrow separation

A 'retired' ATC operator (known as Andrew) has been 'holding forth' about the critical situation for controllers at Heathrow.
It has been reported on BBC Radio Five Live.
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Old 20th Mar 2008, 17:54
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The work of Mr Shoesmith.

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Old 20th Mar 2008, 18:10
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indeed, as well as Tom Symonds, the BBC's transport correspondent. Am nervously awaiting your reaction...
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Old 20th Mar 2008, 18:12
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full version of my online piece

the BBC website only has enough room for a certain length of story. here is the full version:

by Ian Shoesmith & Tom Symonds
BBC News has been told that air traffic controllers are under so much pressure to maximise the number of landings at Heathrow airport that they are putting passenger safety at risk.
A recently-retired air traffic controller -- who spent more than half of his 27 years' service working on the Heathrow operation -- described what he said were serious safety incidents caused by "an errant culture focussing away from safety towards service provision". He claims one incident in particular involved the "reckless endangerment of the travelling public".
The controller has asked to remain anonymous, but his identity is well known to National Air Traffic Services (NATS). In the months before he retired in February of this year, NATS asked him to write a report examining potentially dangerous safety breaches which had occurred on approach into Heathrow.
He showed us a copy of that 33-page confidential document, which included detailed analyses of 12 "Loss of Separation" incidents occurring during the year to October 2007.
The report was acknowledged, in writing, by his manager as being "of the highest standard". It contained "not only a very accurate commentary on the Heathrow operation but also several recommendations that we are currently considering."
Heathrow's runways are currently handling 98 percent of their total capacity, and the controller wrote in his report: "a premium on optimum Air Traffic Control performance ... has encouraged controllers to implement inappropriate plans of action and continue with them after it has become clear that (they) cannot be satisfactorily executed".
He told BBC News: "In some areas we are throwing away some of the safeguards because it is the easiest way of moving the aeroplanes. I believe you call that cutting corners."
He points to one incident over Reading early on 28 September 2007. The official NATS Investigation Report concluded that an air traffic controller deliberately turned one plane directly into the path of another passenger jet at the same altitude. By the time avoiding action took effect, the aircraft were just 1.8 nautical miles and 100 feet vertically apart. The legal minimum in this situation is 2.5 miles.
He says this incident -- which involved a British Midland flight from Aberdeen and an incoming Air France plane from Paris -- involved a "greater risk than I have ever seen in 27 years of air traffic control. The controller quite deliberately, although not maliciously, put aeroplanes in a fail-dangerous situation, in order that he could maintain the runway service rate. And in so doing he endangered the travelling public."
<insert URL for "Reading incident" sidebar in here>
The NATS Investigation Report, also obtained by the BBC, did indeed conclude that the controller "set up a fail-dangerous situation wherein further and timely Air Traffic Control intervention was necessary to prevent the tracks crossing at similar altitudes ... failure of the second turn to take effect, for any reason, will likely lead to a close encounter".
A senior NATS manager has privately acknowledged that this incident was an example of extremely poor air traffic control technique, but NATS insists this and the other incidents were not serious because aircraft were turned in good time. None were classified as a near-miss -- or 'airproxes' in the official jargon.
Alex Bristol, general manager of the Swanwick NATS unit in Hampshire, the site responsible for flights approaching Heathrow, insisted that safety was the "primary concern, at all times".
"We have hugely skilled controllers who have been trained over many years. We have systems and procedures in place which ensure safety. We have a reporting system and culture which I believe to be second-to-none in Europe, certainly, and probably in the world. I think we are on top of our safety in a way that gives me complete reassurance that (it) is a safe operation."
So are controllers being put under undue pressure to maximise the flow of aircraft?
"Absolutely not, " said Mr Bristol. He added that his priority was to ensure "safety above absolutely anything else. Safety above service delivery. I am confident about that and I consistently review the procedures that we run to assure myself that that continues to be the case."
NATS also point to technological safety nets. Controllers have a system that alerts them to potential collisions, and airliners have the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System -- which tells pilots what avoiding action to take.
Nonetheless, this system should never be used as the main method of keeping aircraft apart.
However the BBC's source is also concerned about the spacing of aircraft as they come in to land at Heathrow. A set minimum distance must legally apply between pairs of aircraft. Typically it is three miles, but when a large plane like a Boeing 777 is in front, a bigger gap must be left behind it. This is because larger planes create something called "wake vortex" -- heavy turbulence which can be highly dangerous to the following aircraft. NATS' own figures suggest minimum spacing is regularly being breached on the final approach -- typically 20 percent each month.
Should individual controllers be blamed? No, says the source, who specifically praises his former workmates: "Heathrow is only able to achieve what it achieves because of the skill of these very professional and dedicated people, but I believe they have been pushed too far. I believe the culture has become errant and I believe that is a danger to the public."
To illustrate his claim that Heathrow controllers' workload is excessive, he points to the fact that "whereas most other sectors try and keep aeroplanes apart, we actually try and put them as close together as we really dare within the limits of the law. That is the only way we can actually service Heathrow at the (required) demand.
"When human beings make mistakes, if they're always aiming for minima, there is no scope, there is no room left to cater for those errors. And that exposes us."
He believes safety standards could be improved, without sacrificing capacity, by introducing rules to guarantee aircraft are at different heights when they turn to make their final approaches.
"Traffic could easily be given a vertical differential, a vertical separation, a vertical safeguard that means that when the traffic does turn in towards each other, should there be an error ... All we've lost is our pride."
"It is something that they could actually do overnight -- it's not something that requires a change of airspace or anything like that. It effectively requires a change of government policy."
But NATS managers have told the BBC this would be a major change to the air traffic control system, affecting approaches to other airports aside from Heathrow. They insist it's not needed because of the skill of the controllers working on the Heathrow Approach -- seen as some of the organisation's best.
Introducing vertical safeguards would also make it more difficult to use Continuous Descent Approach, a technique where aircraft descend steadily, rather than in steps. The government prefer this technique on environmental grounds, because it involves less fuel being burned, and makes life quieter for those living under the flightpath.
NATS has been dismayed by the controller's decision to make his concerns public. But it does admit that there have been instances of poor technique in the handling of Heathrow-bound aircraft, and the CAA has confirmed to the BBC there has been an increase in incidents.
NATS says it has now given individual controllers extra training and advice. It believes the problem has now been resolved.
Mr Bristol added: "Where there are occasions when bad techniques are employed we will deal with those to improve safety on a day-by-day basis, as we have done in this case."
The BBC source actually supports the building of a third runway at Heathrow -- to reduce pressure on the existing pair, and the air traffic controllers that oversee them. But he hopes the government will not allow such high frequencies of aircraft to land -- and NATS managers agree this is unthinkable.
And our source agrees that aviation remains one of the safest forms of transport -- partly because individuals like him are encouraged to report their concerns. But he insists with regard to Heathrow: "there are a number of significant areas where we are not as secure on safety as we should be. Some of our strategies for operation are not watertight. And therefore I believe that in some areas, and I stress the some areas, the public is at greater risk than it should be or needs to be."
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Old 20th Mar 2008, 18:18
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the reading incident

The Air France aircraft was heading north, while the British Midland was heading south. Despite being second in the sequence, the Air France pilot was ordered by Air Traffic Control to turn in towards Heathrow's final approach before the British Midland. This meant that this plane was turning directly across the path of the British Midland. The controller gave this order on the basis that immediately afterwards he would order the British Midland pilot to turn in front of the Air France jet.
But what if the controller could not immediately get through to the British Midland pilot? The BBC's whistle-blower says that happens on a relatively common basis. Sometimes he says the radio system is used to 90 percent of its capacity, a claim rejected by NATS Swanwick general manager. In lay terms, it's the equivalent of getting through at the first attempt when making a mobile phone call at a crowded event like a football match. Whilst you hope this happens, sometimes it takes two or more tries.
The recently retired controller said: "The radio sometimes becomes blocked, pilots are slow to take the turn, the air traffic controller may have got distracted by something else. Had that turn not taken place then extrapolation of the radar picture demonstrates that the aeroplane from the north would have passed very close indeed -- probably less than a quarter of a mile -- straight across the front of the one from the south. That is extraordinarily close. That is a shocking incident".
In terms of timings, he estimates from the radar that collision could have been as little as 20 seconds away: "Whether they actually would have hit -- very, very difficult to judge but they got extremely close and way past the point, way, way past the point, at which the regulator should be getting involved with this type of operational culture."
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Old 20th Mar 2008, 18:34
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How is "Andrew", who by the way has a very distictive voice and will be recognised by all his colleagues, a whistleblower? He showed you a NATS report that they commisioned to give more information in to a trend that they had noticed and were doing things about. They have continued to do things to improve the safety environment and this news item is in effect along the lines of "NATS safety were doing their job and have continued to do their job in maintaining the safety around Heathrow."

And just how many incidents were AIRPROX?
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Old 20th Mar 2008, 18:38
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SLF speaking.
Good work by the BBC.

Whilst presuming that all controllers are doing their very best, I presume that most major airfields around the world have this problem.

I have presumed for some ten years that these problems are higher at EGLL and EGKK due to the reduced level of interest that the CAA takes in the running of operations since the changes introduced by the Thatcher govt.

The CAA have consistently allowed more rotations to be booked into EGLL than it can reasonably (that lovely English word) handle. NATS have, in my personal opinion, consistently accepted more traffic movements in the London area than can reasonably be handled. I presume that, at some time, two a/c will meet over London. I presume that the chance of this happening is slight but GREATER in London that it might be or should be.

I see the actions of the CAA and NATS as being entirely typical of modern govt in the UK, as instigated by the Conservatives and enthusiastically continued by the neo-Tories, otherwise known as New/Labour.

Can anything be done? Yes, cut back on traffic movements until new runway capacity is available. That will not happen. And, if more runway capacity IS provided, then the numbers will be increased further. This will be done because the lack of prangs will 'prove' that what they are doing is safe, so they can have more movements with another runway. Rather than the keep the numbers the same and increase distances and timings.

The only other thing to do is have more ATC staff and reduce their workload and time at the screen. Again, this won't happen and because of the commercial pressures. Which ... is where the problem started!
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Old 20th Mar 2008, 19:13
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We have to accept that, every once in a while, errors will inevitably be made. We, in the aviation community, are humans. This was, unfortunately, one such incident.

I would like to thank "Andrew" for spreading confusion and unnecessary panic throughout the passenger world because he has got a bee in his bonnet. One incident, investigated, action taken, end of story.

Perhaps he'll pop up on here and say why he has decided to discredit his former colleagues in such a crass and public way....

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Old 20th Mar 2008, 19:19
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Anyone know who this 'Andrew' is then?
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Old 20th Mar 2008, 19:19
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ATC pressures
"we actually try and put them as close together as we really dare within the limits of the law"

not dissimilar to the rostering of pilots to the limits of FTL's

Put both together and what will we get?!!!
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Old 20th Mar 2008, 19:32
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we highlighted one incident. In the 33 page report written by "Andrew" there were a dozen LOS incidents. The Reading one was the most serious.

None were airproxes -- although a couple were very borderline cases.

The CAA have spotted a trend of increased LOS's because they automatically generate MORs. They have spoken to NATS and ordered remedial action. in some cases extra training.

As I said on air and have made clear, "Andrew" goes out of his way to praise the professionalism and skill of his former colleagues. What concerns him though is the pressure on them to be at 100% all of the time. when you have little "wriggle room", the consequences of even small mistakes can be magnified.

Yes I know there is STCA and TCAS, but would you be confident about relying on them to get you out of a hole, or would you prefer never to be put in that situation?

"Andrew" cares deeply about his former colleagues -- I've been speaking to him for many weeks, and he strikes me as being highly conscientous.

The fact that his immediate boss praised his work in that report was telling, in our view.

Please excuse my slight stream of consciousness -- I've been in the office since 6.30 and was here until nineish last night.

I've made every effort to be as thorough as possible in compiling these reports -- it's taken quite a few weeks of research.

Best wishes

Ian Shoesmith
BBC News
07769 977665

PS this is the second major story broken as a result of help from ppruners -- thanks to one and all for your (almost) universal support and patience. if anybody has any other aviation concerns -- you know where to find me.

PPS as for anonymity, "Andrew" is aware his former bosses and colleagues will recognise him. having just retired on medical grounds, he now wants to create a new life for himself with his family.
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Old 20th Mar 2008, 19:34
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Point Seven Whilst he may have a question to answer from his former colleagues, I doubt that the public will give this two seconds thought.

Those that are nervous will be slightly more nervous and those that presume this happens all the time will shrug their shoulders. The continuing high safety record of the industry is one that continues to prevent people from seeing the risks.

Unless people die, nothing will change. I regret to say for the man who has risked so much, as far as the greatest majority of the public and the politicians are concerned, I expect that this news will evaporate.
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Old 20th Mar 2008, 19:36
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I think this story is about NATS getting it wrong, not getting it right.

Unsafe sex is akin to Russian roulette.

I think all would agree that unsafe ATC is akin to Russian roulette.

Perhaps someone could indicate some good links to Airprox, SSE's, Level Busts, Runway Incursions etc. so we can have a look? Are Airprox figures a good measure of safety trends anyway?

I stumbled on this the other day - a discussion paper by Peter Brooker that might give us a better idea of the problem of establishing ways to measure safety performance meaningfully in 'very safe systems', ... or not ...

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Old 20th Mar 2008, 19:49
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Anyone know who this 'Andrew' is then?
He is a fairly regular poster on PPRuNe but I don't suppose it would be polite to give away his pseudonym.
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Old 20th Mar 2008, 19:51
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shoey, to echo zkdli , you did not exactly do a great job of covering the controllers identity.

And secondly, if this piece is concerned with the safety of the travelling public in the world's busiest airspace, then why did ye send the BBC chopper up into the mix....
Havent the ATC guys n' gals in that part of the world got enough to be doing without a Beeb helicopter at low level, looking for pretty shots of Heathrow

Just my 2 cents (excluding taxes, fees and charges)
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Old 20th Mar 2008, 20:13
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Forgive me, but I've been a controller for a while now and everytime you mention to people what you do, a good lot reply with "Ooooh, is is true what the BBC said on blah,blah,blah.."

They do notice and it won't help to implement any changes that may need putting in place.

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Old 20th Mar 2008, 20:14
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Shoey - what is the definition of an airprox?
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Old 20th Mar 2008, 20:17
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typical bbc sensationalist hatchet job - none of them were airproxes?
well, nothing to write about then is it!
Controllers put aircraft as close as they are allowed?! - er well isn't that maximising the efficient use of airspace.
I use as little thrust as i'm allowed and often take as little fuel as i'm allowed in order to have efficient use of my resources - oh my god maybe I always should put 34 tones of fuel on and use full thrust - you know, just in case.

of course the remedy to all this is more runways and more airports. Now who is the most vocal opponent to that in the UK.
Well smack me with a wet kipper if it ain't the BBC.
Bunch of self-opinionated, self-important, self-appointed *$*S*(S($
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Old 20th Mar 2008, 20:18
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PPS as for anonymity, "Andrew" is aware his former bosses and colleagues will recognise him. having just retired on medical grounds, he now wants to create a new life for himself with his family.
Interesting way of going about it
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Old 20th Mar 2008, 20:28
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@757 driver, more runways and airports may sound good but not without more people to run them. And that is where the problem lies, the only real solution is a reduction of controller's workload in whatever way. And that is not likely to happen in the near future I'm afraid, certainly not by building more tarmac to put the tin on.
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