Flight delays possible as air traffic control system goes digital

NATS personnel give a demonstration in the operations room at National Air Traffic Services (NATS) Swanwick in Hampshire, which will direct aircraft at London City Airport using the UK's first remote digital air traffic control tower. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
NATS personnel give a demonstration in the operations room at National Air Traffic Services (NATS) Swanwick in Hampshire, which will direct aircraft at London City Airport using the UK's first remote digital air traffic control tower. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
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AIR traffic controllers are warning passenegers to expect delays at airports from Wednesday as a new digital information system is introduced.

The National Air Traffic Services (Nats) is overhauling its antiquated system, which has seen controllers using paper slips to record information and then pass that to pilots.

Nats, which has a main base in Swanwick, says ‘it can no longer deal with demand’ and that an updated system was needed.

The authority said it needs to reduce the amount of air traffic in south-east England as controllers get used to the new system.

Consequently, this could cause delays of around 20 minutes at Heathrow and 10 minutes at Gatwick, Nats’ Pete Dawson said.

The UK’s air traffic provider says the electronic tool, called EXCDS, is part of a plan to ‘meet forecast growth’ and ‘improve efficiency’.

Swanwick’s London Air Traffic Control Centre will need to manage the controllers’ workload while EXCDS is introduced.

In order to make a smooth transition, safely, the centre is limiting the number of aircraft that fly into Heathrow and Gatwick for two days, resulting in some delays.

In a statement, Mr Dawson said: ‘It’s very difficult to predict exactly what that delay will be - there are many other factors like the weather and industrial action in France.

‘Broadly speaking, as a rough rule of thumb, we anticipate that where aircraft are delayed – going into Heathrow, for example – the average delay per aircraft will be about 20 minutes.

‘It’ll be about half of that at Gatwick – about 10 minutes.’

Residents living under flight paths will also be affected, as overnight curfews for landing and departing aircraft will be relaxed.

Permission has been sought by Nats to land some planes ‘slightly earlier and slightly later than usual’.

Nats in Swanwick is one of the first in the UK to introduce a digital air traffic control centre. It monitors London City airports air travel.

The £480m overhaul will see the functions of the traditional 18-metre control tower in the capital transferred in full to a series of high resolution digital cameras on top of a soon-to-be-built 50m mast, with these images being beamed to a control hub in Swanwick.