Record number of flights threaten air-traffic control

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The Independent Online

Air-traffic controllers will be handling more flights than ever this summer to cope with the "relentless growth in air travel", the National Air Traffic Service (Nats) said yesterday.

Air-traffic controllers will be handling more flights than ever this summer to cope with the "relentless growth in air travel", the National Air Traffic Service (Nats) said yesterday.

But the news of the increase came as a confidential report warned that the rapid growth in the number of aircraft had outstripped the system, and that air-traffic control was on the brink of "serious failure".

The concern of controllers was outlined in reports to Chirp (the Confidential Human Factors Incident Reporting Programme), which allows controllers, pilots and engineers to express views anonymously.

One controller said: "We no longer have the runway capacity to provide the safety margins that are necessary ... we must either build more runways where they are wanted or reduce the number of movements". Another warned that a new telephone and radio system has recently failed several times, and added: "I feel a rapid improvement is essential before a major incident occurs. I feel a serious failure of the systems is imminent without rapid improvement, and I am in no way alone in this view."

The revelations by Chirp, a charitable trust partly funded by the Civil Aviation authority, comes at the start of the school holidays, and just one week after the completion of the first stage of bidding for the partial privatisation of the air-traffic control system. It also follows a parliamentary select committee report stating it was "very concerned" about the increasing incidence of controllers being overworked.

The Civil Aviation Authority said yesterday that the Chirps warnings of impending failure were "over the top", and that the problem with the communication system had been rectified. And the Nats insisted that the increase in flights would pose no safety threat and that it had been working to relieve congestion in British airspace.

A spokesman said: "Safety is, and will remain, the first priority for air-traffic control. There are safety limits on the number of flights that can be handled. We can only provide additional capacity where it is safe to do so."

To cope with the summer rush, airspace capacity has been improved in London and the south, Manchester and northern England, and Scotland.

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