Breaking Out Of The Blame Cycle

There is no doubt that we’ve just emerged from a very challenging summer, writes Martin Rolfe, the chief executive of UK provider NATS, in the latest issue of Air Traffic Management magazine.

Across Europe, traffic was 4% higher than forecast, and while many of us enjoyed (or endured) long periods of hot weather, that also brought severe and prolonged thunderstorms, all of which conspired to create very difficult operational conditions.

However, even taking that into account and putting aside the impact of industrial action which is largely a political challenge to solve, the hard truth is that ATC network performance in parts of Europe has been a serious cause for concern. The system’s vulnerability to small changes – be it traffic growth or weather – and the disproportionate impact they can have, has been laid bare. But rather than pore over the symptoms, I want to try and diagnose the root cause and suggest some possible treatments.

What we have seen this summer is the outcome of two previous regulatory period settlements coming home to roost. You cannot deliver high service performance with the levels of traffic we’re seeing without being prepared to invest to handle it.  A drive to cut costs without an appreciation of how that is intrinsically linked to performance, together with the inability to react to changes in traffic levels, has to stop. The correlation between those airlines who complain the loudest (justifiably in some circumstances, but not all) and those who continue to demand lower and lower prices is not hard to spot either.

In the UK we have done comparatively well. As I write this, Eurocontrol has just published July’s performance figures and NATS contributed only 3% to European delay despite handling around 25% of its traffic. However, we are not complacent and will need to increase investment, in both technology and people, to sustain and improve this performance in the face of growing traffic.

So what’s to be done?

I absolutely welcome the Commission’s REFIT initiative looking to cut red tape and simplify European regulation and while I see initiatives for pet food, fisheries and VAT, where is the aviation element? It addresses passenger rights, an important area for sure, but there must be space for ATM? The regulatory model we have is increasingly input orientated, does not recognise that cost and performance are completely interdependent and the model is relatively inflexible when the external environment deviates from that planned. Comprehensive impact assessments are rarely done and when they are, they fail to take into account the wider implications. For example, EASA’s aim to grant GA traffic greater access to IFR airspace is a fine notion in principle, but no consideration is given to the impact on commercial airline capacity and whether ANSPs will then be able to meet the requirements of the performance scheme. This kind of approach is driving the wrong behaviours and creating perverse outcomes.

What’s needed is outcome orientated regulation that focuses on the end objective – with suitable incentives and penalties – and then gets out of the way. Compare for a moment the relative achievements of FABs – organised at state level –with some of the industry level alliances that have been created around operational reality. The Borealis Alliance, for example, has made huge progress in delivering Free Route Airspace and it’s done it totally outside the apparatus of the Commission. As for the FABs, well I’m sure you’ll have your own conclusions, but I don’t think anyone really believes they have fulfilled the Commission’s vision.

It is also time to acknowledge that ATM performance is not solely down to ANSPs, with the entire industry needing to take greater responsibility for their own contribution. Earlier this year we introduced a new electronic flight progress strip system into London Terminal Control. This was an enormous undertaking, years in the planning, not just from an engineering perspective but in terms of understanding and trying to mitigate the operational impact. You can’t introduce a major new system into one of the world’s busiest pieces of airspace without incurring some delay, and we spent months working with the airlines on ways to reduce that wherever possible. For each transition we offered tactical re-route scenarios to help avoid the worst of the delays. Most airlines took up the opportunity – and I’d like to thank them for their great engagement in the transition – but those that didn’t suffered comparatively poorer on-time performance as a result, and then complained the loudest after the event.

It’s a good example of the mutual benefit to ANSPs and airlines of working together, and equally the consequences of not doing so.

Performance will only ever be as good as the sum of all the moving parts. It is a collective responsibility and while there is no doubt that ANSPs can do more, everyone has their part to play in delivering a quality service.

This won’t be a universally popular opinion, but airlines that don’t allow sufficient turn-around time; don’t have enough ground handling resource; and don’t schedule in line with the available capacity must acknowledge the impact this has on their own operation and the knock-on effect to the smooth running of the wider network. I sincerely hope we don’t see a repeat of the challenges of this summer across Europe, but if traffic continues to grow over the coming years I fear the worst. To avoid that we need a regulatory landscape that incentivises positive outcomes; an acknowledgement that we’re all part-responsible for the smooth running of the network; and an understanding that great service requires investment and a desire for all parties to work together to deliver it.



  1. Great article Martin Rolfe, I especially like your focus on working collaboratively to optimize overall network performance.

    An Air Navigation Service Provider’s main desire is to create products or services that are attuned to the needs and values of its customers. The best way to do this is to work together to achieve common goals; with shared responsibility for, and commitment to, the collaborative outcomes.

    Your example of introducing a new electronic flight progress strip system into London Terminal Control clearly demonstrates the benefits of collaborative customer engagement. Actively joining forces to achieve a single, common goal – minimizing the impact during the implementation of a new technology – with shared commitment for the outcomes is a very effective strategy. Conversely, individual efforts performed for their own sake and in order to optimize individual performance often generate their own consequences – higher levels of delay in this case.

    Dynamic environments such as commercial aviation require diverse participation to support the desired schedules, trajectories and economic objectives of flight operators. To your point, comprehensive air traffic management modernization requires human and capital investments. Incentivizing the desired outcomes is a great way to overcome individual interests and roadblocks to progress. And accomplishing this incentivization begins with a commitment to collaborative behavior over individual interests by all parties.

  2. I am chocked to read the comments from Mr Martin Rolfe as saying: “EASA’s aim to grant GA traffic greater access to IFR airspace is a fine notion in principle, but no consideration is given to the impact on commercial airline capacity and whether ANSPs will then be able to meet the requirements of the performance scheme. This kind of approach is driving the wrong behaviours and creating perverse outcomes.”

    As a commercial pilot with 52+ years of flight experience I can only say that with the above vision from this chief executive — NATS needs new management and that now.
    It clearly speaks out — incompentence.

Comments are closed.