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Cable accuses Nats of under-investment
From the Financial Times of Sun, 14 Dec 2014 16:34:12 GMT
Undated picture of the inside of the NATS (National Air Traffic Services) air traffic control centre at Swanwick, in Hampshire. British Airways has said Thursday June 3, 2004, that the national air traffic control computer system crashed at 6am and flights were being operated manually by air traffic controllers See PA story AIR Flights. PA photo: NATS / Handout.©PA

The inside of the National Air Traffic Services air traffic control centre at Swanwick, in Hampshire

Vince Cable, business secretary, accused National Air Traffic Services of “skimping on large-scale investment for very many years”, as ministers await a report on Friday’s computer problems that caused havoc to flights in and out of Britain.

Mr Cable claimed that the air traffic controllers at Swanwick relied on “very ancient computer systems which then crash”, disrupting British business in the process.

Ministers will on Monday be handed an initial report into the computer breakdown and Patrick McLoughlin, transport secretary, will face questions on the incident from MPs on the transport select committee.

But Mr Cable, speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, pre-empted the report. “It’s often the easy thing to do under financial pressure to be pennywise and pound-foolish and to forgo capital investment,” he said.

“I think the lesson for the future in both the private and the public sector is we do have to maintain a high level of capital investment.”

Mr Cable’s criticisms of Nats’ investment programme is partly an admission of fault on the part of the government, which has a 49 per cent stake in the public-private partnership that owns it.

It comes as the UK’s big airports said air services returned to normal by Sunday following widespread disruption that saw hundreds of flights delayed or cancelled over the weekend.

A spokesman for Heathrow said flights were now “back to normal”. On Friday about 90 flights were cancelled at the airport because of the IT glitch, with an additional 38 impacted the following day.

The computer failure made it impossible for the controllers to access data regarding individual flight plans. Aircraft were prevented from taking off, but those in the air and close to airports were allowed to land during a shutdown that lasted about 45 minutes. Thousands of passengers faced delays and cancelled flights.

Louise Ellman, chair of the transport select committee, told the Financial Times that it planned to follow up the incident with its own investigation. “We will call both Nats and the Civil Aviation Authority to provide evidence and we may decide to call the airports, too, as we want to know how passengers were treated,” she said.

“Clearly what happened isn’t acceptable. There was a massive disruption which shouldn’t have happened. We need to get answers to find out what happened.”

Nats is also facing calls to dock the bonuses of its chief executive Richard Deakin. Labour MP Paul Flynn, who sits on the public administration committee, told the Sunday Times Mr Deakin should be stripped of his bonuses because of the disruption.

It follows reports that Mr Deakin’s pay package increased by 45 per cent this year, taking his total pay package to more than £1m. However, a spokesperson for Nats defended the pay package, noting that the rise was because of the maturing of long-term incentive plans.

Nats also defended reports that it had been warned by the CAA four months ago that its plans to deal with technical failures were unclear. The Independent on Sunday said the regulator had told Nats this summer it needed to be better prepared following its IT glitch almost exactly a year ago.

However, Nats said it provided the CAA with a further, more extensive and detailed report. “In August, the CAA stated they were now satisfied that there were no safety issues associated with Nats’ handling of the 2013 incident and the CAA confirmed that Nats investigations provided a detailed assessment of the event and adequacy of contingency and resilience plans,” said Nats.

Nats has been beset with problems since it first opened 12 years ago. The last big outage last year led to almost 300 flights being cancelled and 1,400 delayed over a two-day period. That failure cost it £7.3m and led to senior executives losing part of their annual bonus.

Nats said it typically invested £140m each year and planned to spend £575m over the next five years on improving its systems.

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