Gatwick controller shortages force runway closure – despite £60,000 “golden handcuffs”

Gatwick Airport could face more disruption this summer if the business supplying its air traffic control does not tackle the shortage of first-class controllers at one of the world’s busiest single-use runway airports, according to an industry expert.

The London airport confirmed that the runway was closed between 01.40 – 03.20 and 04.10 – 05.20 on the morning of 9 April – due to there being only one controller out of the scheduled three able to work in the control tower due to sickness.

“We worked closely with air traffic controllers and airlines to minimise the impact to passengers on the four flights that were scheduled to arrive at the airport during these times,” Gatwick’s owners said, adding that the staffing issue had been resolved.

Ian Thompson, a leading air traffic management industry expert and regular contributor to Air Traffic Management magazine, warns however that the business providing the airport’s air traffic control will need to recruit and retain the necessary number of expert controller staff if airport operations are not to be jeopardised again especially over the busy summer period.

Gatwick Airport awarded its air traffic control to Air Navigation Solutions (ANSL) on 1 March 2016, the British subsidiary of Deutsche Flugsicherung (DFS), the business responsible for German air traffic control. UK provider NATS which had up until that time provided air traffic control lost out on the tender.

Thompson, in a recent academic paper on the commercialisation of air traffic control services, said he suspects that ANS won the contract by fielding the lowest cost offer. Indeed, in a legal challenge NATS claimed that its rival DFS submitted a tender price that was abnormally low and based on employing 33 controllers whereas NATS reckoned 35 would be needed.

After ANSL won the contract, around one third of Gatwick controllers actually opted to remain with NATS, rather than transfer to ANSL so UK air traffic control ended up providing staff on secondment for two years to ease the handover between the two businesses.

Last year, a study commissioned by the UK civil aviation regulator reviewed the transition of air traffic control at both Birmingham and Gatwick airports from the incumbent NATS to alternative providers.

It found that ANSL had made overly optimistic assumptions about both the time needed to replace the NATS controllers following their two-year secondment and the ability to recruit high calibre controllers from similarly complex locations such as Brussels and Dubai.

Thompson said the review also concluded that the ANSL transition plan neither took sufficient account of the complexity of Gatwick operations which limits training capacity, nor did it reflect the length of training needed or the industry standard failure rate of 30 per cent.

“In a further complication, some [NATS] secondees sought to take breaks from delivering on-the-job training or refused to provide it, which is common in other [NATS] locations,” said Thompson.

Since the transfer of services to ANSL up to 12 per cent (seven staff) of the total workforce has resigned to work elsewhere – when one would usually expect the loss of only one employee.

With the secondment agreement concluding in February this year, Thompson judges that Gatwick will be significantly below its operational requirement for air traffic controllers and that any staff shortages could have a significant impact as traffic increases during the summer.

“To address this shortfall, [controller union] Prospect has been in negotiations with ANSL about introducing revised working practices and increased remuneration to enhance recruitment and retention,” reports Thompson.

To tackle the staffing issues, ANSL has offered controllers retention payments or ‘golden handcuffs’ of £60,000, payable over three years, additional basic salary incentives and has matched the attractive work hours, annual leave and pension benefits offered by NATS.

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