Some good may yet come out of last week’s revelation that NATS (National Air Traffic Control) failed to tell Heathrow Airport about critical flight path changes. Residents in the affected areas – Ascot, Binfield, Virginia Water and Bracknell – had consistently complained about the increase in flights over their areas. Heathrow Airport admitted that trials had taken in 2014 but argued that now that the trials have finished, things have returned to normal. However Heathrow issued a statement – COMPTON FINAL STATEMENT 17 March 14 – last week that it had not been told about an earlier 2014 change made by NATS which is still in place. It means that planes are flying in more concentrated flight paths over the affected areas.
In a strong statement Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye said: “I am very concerned that NATS made this change without informing the airport or affected communities about its potential impact, particularly given its effects on some of the same areas to the west of the airport that were affected by the airspace trials we ran last year. Because of the assurances we received, we in turn told residents in good faith that no changes had occurred. That is unacceptable and I unequivocally apologise to local residents. At my request, the Chief Executive of NATS has agreed to urgently review his company’s processes to ensure that NATS shares this information with the airport to prevent this happening again in the future.”
Heathrow has asked NATS to revert to the pre-2014 flight paths but, so far, NATS has not done so.
Some scepticism has been expressed that Heathrow did not know about the NATS’ changes but retired flight path controllers have told HACAN that there is no reason why NATS should have told the Airport or even their own spokespeople. As far as controllers were concerned, they were simply making an alteration to the route departing aircraft took above 8,000 feet in order to ensure more space between planes from Heathrow and those using Stansted and Luton.
This blunder can work in everybody’s favour if it acts as a wake-up call to NATS. NATS technical staff have a superb record in ensuring flying is safe but the culture must change. NATS needs to make sure all its staff are aware of the impact the changes they make will have on people on the ground and of the need to communicate any changes clearly to residents and airports.
But there is a more fundamental challenge for NATS. It needs to come to accept that it cannot proceed with some of the changes it would like to make if they are going to have a noticeably adverse effect on local communities. (The only exception to this would be if safety was seriously compromised). This will require a deep change in the NATS mind-set.
A new approach from NATS is particularly important at a time when significant changes will be introduced to airspace and flight paths to allow for the effective use of new technology. At Heathrow, the airport, local authorities, HACAN and others are working together to try to ensure the best all-round outcome. There will need to be give and take from all bodies. That must include NATS.
The most immediate gesture of good faith would be for NATS to reverse flight path changes they made in June 2014…..and to tell us all about it!