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NATS: Staffing

Volume 832: debated on Tuesday 19 September 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had had with NATS (formerly National Air Traffic Services) regarding their staffing issues which resulted in delays and cancellations in flights at Gatwick Airport on Thursday 14 September.

My Lords, the Government regret the delays caused by staffing issues in the Gatwick air traffic control tower last Thursday. UK airport air traffic control services are a commercial matter in the UK—in the case of Gatwick, between NATS and the airport operator. We continue to engage with stakeholders to review plans for disruption mitigation, and I shall meet the CEOs of NATS, Gatwick, easyJet and the CAA shortly.

My Lords, for the third time in three weeks, travellers have faced immense inconvenience due to air traffic control issues, with flights cancelled, delayed or diverted. The latest incident, as the Minister referred to, was only last week, caused apparently by the untimely sickness of one air traffic controller, and a replacement could not be put in place quickly. Given that NATS is a public/private partnership where the Government own 49%, can the Minister outline what staffing resilience measures NATS will put in place as a result of her current or future discussions? The issues include the framework for staff training, current and future recruitment schemes for air traffic controllers, and the number of staff and vacancies in NATS. Further, will she emphasise whether the Department of Transport is directly involved in building sustainability in the new staffing requirements for NATS?

There are plenty of questions there for me to get my teeth into. I shall focus on staffing and staffing resilience at Gatwick in the tower. Two unrelated operational incidents caused withdrawal pending review, which is a standard safety procedure, and that impacted the flow on that day. However, when NATS took over air traffic control at Gatwick in October 2022, it inherited a staffing shortage. It takes at least 13 months to train an air traffic controller at a specific airport, and as I am sure the noble Baroness realises, 13 months have not yet elapsed. We have reviewed NATS’ plans, we are continuing to do so, and we believe that progress is being made.

My Lords, a fortnight ago, I asked my noble friend whether NATS should be liable to pay compensation for its failures in the same way as the airlines are, but she resisted. In defence, she said that NATS’ licence conditions allow penalties to be imposed for its failures. However, in a Written Answer, my noble friend told me that over the past five years, those penalties amounted only to £600,000, whereas this month the airlines have had to pay £100 million for NATS’ failures. Surely NATS should have to pay compensation in the same way as the airlines.

I thank my noble friend for his continued questions on this matter. There are 55 licensed air navigation service providers in the UK. I am not saying that all of them could look after Gatwick, because it is incredibly complicated, but it is a commercial operation, entirely separate and different from what happens in upper air space, which is what I think my noble friend was questioning me about last week. There is a contractual arrangement between the airport and NATS which will include service level agreements and, I am sure, financial penalties, but it is a commercial matter of which the Government do not have oversight.

My Lords, as someone who uses the airport regularly to come to this House, I have to say that this is not a one-off. Flights are delayed or cancelled regularly each week. Last Thursday was an embarrassment for the airport—more than 17 flights were cancelled with an equal number of flights delayed. What was annoying was the lack of information—passengers were treated with total contempt when trying to find out what was happening. How many flights have been cancelled or delayed over the past two to three years? That information would be important in finding out exactly what is happening at the airport and who is managing it. When flights are cancelled or delayed, who is responsible for sharing that information with passengers?

The reasons for cancellations and delays in the aviation system are numerous, including industrial action in France, adverse weather, wildfires and airspace restrictions owing to the situation in Ukraine. They are more numerous than I can elicit. The noble Lord asked how many flight cancellations there have been. I can tell him that, so far in 2023, there have been 74 flight cancellations due to tower staffing issues at London Gatwick; that is 74 out of 180,000 flights, so it is fewer than 0.1% of movements. I accept his premise that there will have been cancellations for other reasons and have noted some of them, but those are not within Gatwick’s or the airlines’ control. In those circumstances, we have to understand that the aviation system is complex and that many different factors can impact the flight schedule.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Young, has outlined one way in which the penalties that can be imposed on NATS are inadequate, but that is not the only inadequacy. If things are so bad that flights are not delayed but cancelled then the current legislation ensures, ironically, that NATS will not suffer penalties. It suffers penalties only for delays and not for cancellations. When are the Government going to deal with that important loophole in the legislation?

The issue that the noble Baroness raises will be covered when the CAA completes its review of the outage in upper airspace that NATS suffered recently. I will await the independent regulator’s views on that, and we will obviously take action if needed. The noble Baroness said that the penalties are inadequate, but I also want to stress that when it comes to Gatwick tower control, the Government have no oversight of or insight into what those penalties are. They may well be adequate, as they are negotiated on a commercial footing.

My Lords, the Government seem to have a problem with people, because there is a shortage of people in this, as we have heard from many noble Lords already. It is a similar problem to what we will be debating later: a shortage of drivers on the west coast main line. Both those problems involve businesses which the Government say are commercial but in fact, behind the scenes, they make very sure that nobody is allowed to recruit enough people to ensure that there is a contingency. What are the Government going to do about that?

The noble Lord conflates two of my favourite topics. As he knows, both those companies are privately run and can recruit as many people as they like. However, they suffer the same thing: during the Covid pandemic, it was very difficult to train traffic controllers and train drivers. To a certain extent, there is a bit of catch-up going on. As I say, for train drivers as for air traffic controllers, training takes a very long time. It is at least 18 months before that person is operational.

My Lords, this is a very complex and almost unique issue. We have the failure of a small unit, with perhaps three people on duty, impacting on the enterprise as a whole. The problem is: what is the adequate reserve? When NATS took over in October last year, Gatwick saw the need to agree staffing levels. As an increase in staff was needed, recruitment and training were put in hand, but it has not yet delivered. That was 11 months ago. It may be that ab initio to on duty is 13 months, but surely more energy should be put into finding a bridging solution to that problem. We also need to worry about who should be financially responsible. I caution against putting the responsibility on NATS on the day, because the runway is the most dangerous part of any operation, especially into Gatwick. But is the present situation equitable and, in the final analysis, is not Gatwick responsible for Gatwick?

In the final analysis, Gatwick is indeed responsible for Gatwick. As the noble Lord will know, there are numerous London airports which, I am sure, would be happy to provide services. Therefore, there is a rationale for Gatwick management making sure that their operations run very smoothly. The noble Lord mentioned a bridging solution. I agree; I wish there were one. However, the simple fact is that Gatwick is the busiest single-runway airport in the world. Even an experienced air traffic controller still needs that 13 months to train in order to take up their role. Even worse than that, at 13 months the success rate is still 50%, because safety always comes first.