UK ATC requires resilience improvements

Interim report into UK ATC failure in summer 2023 publishes first findings
The upgraded airspace covers 54,000 square nautical miles over Wales and the southwest of England (Image: NATS)
Image: NATS

An investigation setup by the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority into a massive ATC failure last summer has initially identified several areas where air navigation service provider NATS needs to improve processes and resilience.

The regulator estimates that over 700,000 passengers were impacted by the air traffic control failure on 28 August 2023.

An independent panel and investigation was set up by the CAA following the incident.

An interim report published last month reveals that a good understanding now exists of the reasons for the failure, related to the shared waypoint acronym DVL standing for Deauville in France and Devil’s Lake in the USA and causing NATS En Route Ltd’s (NERL’s) system to shut down for safety reasons.

The report also details the process to respond and rectify the issue, which it says was more protracted than it needed to be. These include an engineer taking 1.5 hours to arrive on site to restart the computer system, only after escalation protocols took three hours to contact him. It also says it took four hours to contact system-supplier Frequentis for help.

In addition, the Panel said that factors such as communications around the incident need improving. The report says, “Evidence from airports, airlines, consumer organisations and others indicates a good deal of dissatisfaction with the speed, style and effectiveness of NERL’s communications with its customers and stakeholders both during the event and in its immediate aftermath.”

The report notes that the incentive regime for investment and the response by the aviation system need further investigation. It says, “The Panel questions whether the overwhelming prioritisation accorded to safety has meant that very little attention has been paid to improving resilience.

“In its final report, the Panel will scrutinise further the degree of organisational emphasis given to resilience, both in terms of specific investment, and in terms of scrutiny by the Board.”

NATS said that it has already acted to address a number of findings arising from its own internal investigation.

Jeff Halliwell, Chair of the Independent Review Panel, said, “This interim report sets out the Panel’s work so far in understanding the root causes of the incident; the effectiveness of communications between NATS, other parts of the aviation sector, and the consumers; and the underpinning regulatory regime.

“In developing the interim report, the Panel has engaged with a wide range of stakeholders to ensure the final report reflects a diverse range of perspectives.

“To produce effective recommendations, the Panel has further lines of enquiry it is exploring in order to build a better understanding of how the aviation system can improve.”

Tim Alderslade, CEO of Airlines UK, the industry body representing UK-registered carriers said, “This report contains damning evidence that NATS’ basic resilience planning and procedures were wholly inadequate and fell well below the standard that should be expected for national infrastructure of this importance. 

“We welcome the Committee’s plans for further investigation to provide recommendations so that this kind of catastrophic failure is not allowed to happen again.”

The Independent Panel’s final report is expected to be published later this year.