Clear skies ahead

Air
traffic control in the UK went through turbulent times in 2002, but the
appointment of a new general manager signalled a change of fortune, and the
National Air Traffic Service is now firmly back on course. Ross Wigham reports

Flying
is supposed to be the ultimatefreedom and as your holiday jet cruises at
altitude, it can often feel like the only plane in the sky. It’s not. On
average, there are another 9,999 planes in the air somewhere around the world,
with about 5,300 air movements per day controlled from the UK.

The
reality is that the skies around the UK are filled with aircraft taking off,
landing or en-route to somewhere else, all of which have to be controlled from
the ground.

Despite
the fact the UK has the largest amount of air traffic outside the US, the
organisation in charge of controlling the skies has been in crisis for the last
year.

The
National Air Traffic Service (NATS) has been blighted by delays, poor employee
relations, recruitment difficulties, equipment problems and a continually
postponed move to a new £623m nerve centre at Swanwick in Hampshire.

Adding
to its problems was a rocky transfer from public to private ownership.

Events
reached a nadir when staff threatened to go on strike over pay and a lack of
consultation – a situation compounded by staff shortages, overwork and mistakes
with the new computer system.

This
had a direct effect on the public, with average delays of 2.6 minutes per flight
and, at its worst, there were more than 900,000 minutes of delays in just one
month.

The
man brought in to resolve the situation was general manager Paul Louden, a
veteran of the organisation with 35 years service – 19 spent as an air traffic
controller at Heathrow airport.

On
his appointment a year ago, he immediately set about building closer links with
the main union, Prospect, to try to heal the rift with staff and get the
organisation moving in the right direction.

"We
knew we had to fix our problems with the unions because as a company we were
bleeding badly last year. Staff also needed to believe in the company more
because we’re totally reliant on the staff to deliver," says Louden.

"HR
also had to start working with staff to re-build some trust and establish
relationships on an individual level."

The
first problem was the move to new Swanwick headquarters, which was 80 miles
away from the old centre (which is still in use) at West Drayton, near Heathrow.

Louden
also needed to regain the trust of the controllers as many had concerns over
safety following the installation of new equipment and NATS’ privatisation.

"We
wanted to assure people that going through privatisation has had no impact on
safety. British Airways and the British Airports Authority are both private
companies and nobody questions their safety. There was a lot of resistance to
privatisation from staff," he says.

Together
with Prospect, he agreed a new approach to employee relationships conducted
through a partnership approach called ‘Working Together’.

The
Working Together document stated exactly how the union and NATS should be
communicating – with a specific commitment to openness, honesty and discussion.

NATS
promised to let the trade union representatives have more influence on the
decision-making process, problem solving, policy communication and training and
development.

"We’ve
worked hard with our staff and developed a partnership approach with the union
so we’re not in conflict. Working together is critical to us as is communication
with our staff," explains Louden.

NATS
also built a new management team focusing more on the concerns of the
controllers in the operations room, and used HR to communicate and negotiate
with the 1,200 strong workforce.

"All
the evidence shows that if you need to make major changes you [should] do it
slowly. However, we built a new centre, introduced a new computer system and
altered the way people work. In hindsight, we should have done things more
slowly and the fact the project was late didn’t help," he says.

Because
of the communications problems and the resentment that had grown around it, HR
set up a graffiti board where staff could ask questions and raise issues
anonymously.

A
management group was then set up to look at solutions and report back on what
was being done to resolve matters.

Sharon
Johnson, HR manager at Swanwick, says the idea helped get problems out in the
open and was a starting point for improving relations with the controllers.

"We
found that confidence soon grew and people were putting serious questions to us
about the organisation. This was the start of the improved dialogue," she
says.

HR
also worked on the organisation’s core values to see what the staff wanted from
them. Staff from across NATS were put into groups to give feedback on what they
actually expected and needed.

"Operational
staff had been quite insular because their job is so important and safety
critical. It’s been good to get people together and get a broader perspective
so they can contribute to the whole site."

After
several meetings, the groups drew up literature to raise awareness and get
feedback on the changes within the company and its core values.

However,
there were still major problems around pay, conditions working patterns and
staff shortages, which Louden decided to handle with a new, conciliatory
approach.

"We’ve
managed to get rid of some conflict and the staff have bought into these
improvements," he says.

"I’ve
tried to create an environment where staff can perform and they’ve done that in
spades. Staff are the key element in the organisation."

The
new centre provided a more comfortable environment to help staff deal with the
challenges of controlling aircraft  and
Louden wanted the new management style to mirror this.

"It’s
not like in the movies where everybody is shouting and at each other’s throats.
We’ve created a relaxed atmosphere where staff can concentrate and work in an
incredibly focused way," Louden says.

To
reduce some of the shortages, NATS used the Working Together scheme to change
the way the UK’s 22 air sectors were operated and agreed a new overtime system.

David
Luxton, national secretary of Prospect, negotiated on the union side and agreed
the new overtime system that paid controllers an extra £500 per additional
shift.

"This
was a breakthrough because it gave management the workforce flexibility it
needed and prevented the closing of air space," he says.

It
also helped reduce the delays from an average of 2.6 minutes last year to just
1.5 minutes today. Although this was achieved following a reduction in flights
due to 9/11, SARS and the war in Iraq, routes were becoming much more complex
and budget airlines grew massively.

"The
closer relations have helped us to reach agreement and get results. Things like
the graffiti board helped because managers took ownership of the
problems," he adds.

Luxton
says the talks have helped ease the atmosphere of distrust. Previously, many of
his members were complaining about the prescriptive style of the managers and
felt there was nowhere to go with grievances.

Although
staff also now feel more listened to, especially concerning safety and
equipment, Luxton believes there is still much to be done.

"A
good start has been made to addressing the issues, but we’re still working with
NATS to address the problems of training, communication and trust between
managers and staff."

Training
is a particular concern as the current pass rate for new controllers is only 65
per cent, which is adding to the staff shortages.

However,
NATS has just developed a much more sophisticated modelling system, which
should improve this over the next five to six years.

Recruitment
is still a major concern and Louden admits that even though around 100 new
controllers are entering the service this year, he still needs more.

"I’m
confident we have enough controllers to deliver the service, but I’m also
certain we need to do more work on the way we select and train our new staff."

Facts


The new air traffic control centre at Swanwick cost £623m


Swanwick deals with more than2 million flights per year


The UK has the largest amount of air traffic outside the US


UK air traffic control deals with 5,300 air movements each day


London’s airports have 90 million passengers per year

Weblink
www.nats.co.uk

Employee
relations at NATS before Louden’s arrival

November
2002 – Staff threaten strike action after executives receive large bonuses
despite problems within the service

November
2002 – NATS admits passengers could face further delays because of staff
shortages and computer problems

September
2002 – NATS is accused of sexism after placing a recruitment advertisement
entitled ‘bird watching’ in lad’s magazine Loaded. It featured alongside
adverts for cannabis seed, sex lines and erotic websites

August
2002 – Staff shortages intensified after it became clear just three new
controllers would pass through training in 12 months

August
2002 – MPs attack the "cost-cutting and penny-pinching mentality" at
NATS

July
2002 – The number of overload reports filed by staff doubles

May
2002 – Staff admit to misreading the heights of planes and mistaking locations
because of confusing fonts on new computer systems

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