Who messed up the Software ???


'Legacy system' The 'brick' phone above manufactured
some 20 years after the NATS computer..


+++ Saturday 13.12.2014 12 Noon: STATEMENT Swanwick controller workstations. In normal operations the number of workstations in use versus in standby fluctuates with the demands of the >>>>> traffic being controlled. In this instance a transition between the two states caused a failure in the system which has not been seen before. The failure meant that the controllers were unable to access all of the data regarding individual flight plans which significantly increases their workload.+++

In our view this is an astonishing admission to make. Clearly as old ie legacy computer technology  (some dating from the 1960's - A Comet 4C was the jet of choice) is inside the workstations and in the 21st Century still being used, it overheats and the need to 'preserve' the ancient kit means that when not in use it should be 'in standby' mode.


We noted earlier, the visual displays are akin to CEEFAX or Prestel generated images possibly still reliant on TV style cathode ray tubes rather than flat screen digital LED HD displays which are 'cold running' and consume very low voltage.  But the situation at NATS could be worse than we've painted, as we now hear via THE REGISTER that disgraced services firm SERCO provide some of the technical support, and the suggestion is that an incorrectly coded flight plan  subsequently embedded on both servers might have caused the computer crash. 

Its also been revealed that NATS runs on the 1960's IBM’s mainframe architecture S/390, defined in a time when assembler programming was predominant and compilers were in their childhood. S/390 systems include 31-bit addressing mode, instruction-dependent address formats, limited availability of address displacements and immediate literals, and condition code handling.

In the early 1960s IBM defined the System/360 architecture designed to serve a whole family of systems. The difference the distinguished systems of that family had was the way the instruction set was implemented. The System/360 architecture defined 16 32-bit general purpose registers, 4 64bit floating point register and a 24-bit address space.

Shortly afterwards, virtual addressing was added to the architecture.

In 1970, System/370 was introduced, providing an enhanced instruction set.

Around 1982 370/XA brought 31-bit addressing.

In 1988 370/ESA introduced support for multiple address spaces.

In the 1990s the ESA/390 architecture was introduced; subsequent machines added over time the relative branch instructions as well as the IEEE floating-point instruction set.

Effectively the need to turn on and off the Swanwick controller workstations is a major safety issue. An example is any modern office using 21st century computing the units are rarely turned off, if they cease to function, the kit now module based is simply swapped out, with no downtime or loss of data.       

+++ Saturday 13.12.2014: 150 flight cancellations confirmed.

+++ EC2612 Passenger Compensation Rules do NOT apply

+++ Swanwick technical failure UPDATE 20:00hrs  12.12.2014

Following a technical fault with the flight data system used by air traffic controllers at Swanwick, NATS can confirm that the system has been restored to full operational capability and a thorough investigation is continuing, to identify the root cause.

Although operational restrictions applied during the failure have been lifted, it will take time for flight operations across the UK to fully recover so passengers should contact their airline for the status of their flight.

We apologise for the impact that this issue has had, and the delays and inconvenience caused.

Simon Hocquard,  Director Operations Strategy:

We all know that SESAR is the key to unleashing efficiency in the European ATM system – what NATS is now doing is making that happen far more quickly.  Our Deploying SESAR programme is a huge part of our investment programme, but we are fast forwarding it to deliver all the benefits of greater capacity and fuel efficiency, much faster than originally planned.  It will allow us to accelerate deployment of SESAR concepts as they mature, on a single operational and technical platform without the constraints of legacy systems.  It is the most exciting operational transformation in our history – and it is already under way.

Contrast the two statements above - they came directly from the sold off NATS (National Air Traffic Service) website.  NATS manages en-route air traffic services for both civil and military aircraft flying through UK
airspace; NATS Services is the commercial business, providing air traffic control services at 15 UK airports and in Gibraltar.....  It is a public-private partnership formed in 2001 between government, holding 49% plus a golden share, and the Airline Group, which has a 42% share. The stakeholders include British Airways, easyJet and the Universities Superannuation Scheme. NATS staff hold a further 5% stake and LHR Airports Limited 4%. The title NATS harks back to National Air Traffic Control Services, established in December 1962 and when some of the technology introduced then is still in operation in 2014!

However returning to the statements above show that with commercial pressure now being applied both by politicians and a commercially driven Board hell bent on meeting service levels to release contractual financial bonus payments, the pressures on Air Traffic Controllers - the humans at the heart of the machine, are being let down - clearly unacceptable.

The core legacy system dates back to the late 1960's and the software still retains elements from those early pioneering days, but when air traffic volumes were far less. But like the 60's flight details are still to this day initially written to slips of paper and slotted into a try of wooden blocks.... the video display system used within ATM still harks back to the golden days of CEEFAX!

NATS in the UK tracks some 5000 aircraft a day and then 'safely' hands those civil aircraft over to other controllers as the flying asset moves out of NATS controlled airspace into say France. It has to be said the French also cause many additional and unwarranted problems for  NATS by the number of wildcat strikes or other industrial action incidents they generate.

There is no doubt that when NATS was sold off, the purchasers overpaid for the outdated physical asset. The implication at the time was that the entire system needed to move away from paper slips and wooden blocks and invest in a brand new state of the art computing system. Still hasn't happened, have a look at the skillsets of the Board members below, for a possible answer. You'd clearly expect pointy headed computer people to be at the top table...

The reality is that it is  still running old legacy computers needing climate control handling and every time a software upgrade or more correctly a software patch is introduced, there is a real possibility of catastrophic system failure, not matter what the 'spin doctor' at NATS would have you believe. They are putting aircraft and passengers at risk. Any deviation however small, from a recognised schedule involves an element of risk.

The failure of the system on the 12th December is not just a technical problem, or a 'glitch with the software' but an international very public disgrace, as is the brevity of the apology via a website, from NATS for putting the airways at risk.

The problem also is that some media commentators (mainly retired pilots, who had little contact with core operations but were in effect customers of the system) are attempting to suggest that safety was never in question. That is totally wrong, on the TV News, the dire state of ATM NATS style was played out.

One passenger gave a very lucid account, her flight heading for Heathrow was diverted to Paris, then stacked, then taken out of the stack and sent to Brussels, again put into a stack, then finally directed to Heathrow its original intended destination. Total time in flight 3 hours, for a scheduled 80 minute flight. 

Now some Budget airlines have reduced the amount of reserve fuel they carry - lighter planes = larger profits, luckily this particular aircraft had enough fuel on board to burn off during the stack process. To add to the distress, passenger compensation under EC261 Passenger Compensation Rules  isn't available as the incident was not caused by the airlines, however they face a bill of many millions for missed flights, hotels for in-transit clients, and road/air tranfers for passengers diverted to European Airports.

As for baggage, who knows where it is? A game of eventual catch up involving couriers will now take place. Some commentators estimate extras costs totalling £5 Million. Add another couple of million and you could be close. Diverted aircraft sitting at the wrong airport just clock up parking charges and one off refuelling surcharges....hopefully pilots have their gold Amex cards handy!

NATS say they have back up systems at Swanwick, where the computer complex is sited. The back up is however not a new computer but yet more legacy computer kit loaded with endless updates and patches. They do have back up generators and UPS (Uninterrupted Power Supply) so data can be transferred from one system to another but not seamlessly as up to date computing would permit.

The NAT humans still have to put into play the aircraft reduction process: Plan B if you like,  and indeed yesterday the whole of UK Airspace was effectively and very suddenly cleared and closed. It is little wonder that the career of many controllers is somewhat shorter and other will 'burn out' such is the relentless pressure of the job, not helped by legacy hardware, and a Board seemingly sitting on its hands.

 A serious high level  - independent of NATS -  investigation needs to be held immediately without the interference of the European Commission and the composition of the Board also needs some attention. The following this Saturday morning should be hanging their corporate heads in shame....

Paul Golby, Chairman

He served as Chief Executive Officer of E.ON UK plc from 2002 to 2011, is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and was appointed Pro-Chancellor and Chair of Council for Aston University in 2009.
He is also a Non-Executive Director of National Grid.

Nigel Fotherby, Finance Director

He led the Finance team through the transition to PPP (2001) and, following the events of 9/11, the financial restructuring and refinancing of NERL in 2003.
In addition to his current responsibilities for finance, Nigel leads NERL’s economic regulatory team and represented the company in the economic regulator’s review of NERL’s charges for Control Period 3.

Previously, he worked for Lex Service plc as Finance Director of its retail group and then for BT Cellnet, where he was Deputy Finance Director. He began his career with Coopers & Lybrand where he qualified as a Chartered Accountant.
Peter Read

Peter held a number of senior positions with British Airways, most recently as Director of Heathrow from 1997 until 2003, and as Director of Operations until 2005. He joined BA in 1972 as a pilot and flew as a Captain until 1996. He subsequently held senior positions in engineering and flight operations, and in leading major business change programmes in cargo and BA corporate.

 During 2006 and 2007 Peter was employed as Director of Operations for Malaysia Airlines, responsible for all operational areas during a major reconstruction of the company. Peter acted as a Technical Advisor to the Board of Iberia on safety matters from 2005 to 2011. He is the Chairman of AG and is a member of the Safety Review Committee and Nominations Committee. He also chairs the Technical Review Committee.
Harry Bush CB,

Harry is Vice Chairman of UCLH NHS Foundation Trust. He spent most of his career in HM Treasury where he focussed latterly on policies towards growth, science funding and privatisation and private finance. He was UK Director at the European Investment Bank 2001-2.

Harry left the Treasury in 2002 to join the CAA Board as Group Director Economic Regulation responsible for the economic regulation of the designated airports and NATS as well as the CAA’s economic analysis generally. He was a member of Eurocontrol’s Performance Review Commission from 2005 to 2009 and of the UK’s Commission for Integrated Transport from 2006 to 2010.

Since leaving the CAA in 2011 Harry has been a consultant on economic regulation, undertaking assignments across a range of industries in the UK and overseas. He is a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and a Member of the Council of Management of the Regulatory Policy Institute, Oxford.
Gavin Merchant, Senior Investment Manager, Infrastructure (USSIM)

Gavin joined USS in 2011 as Senior Investment Manager with responsibility for sourcing, evaluating and monitoring co-investments within the infrastructure portfolio and is a voting member of the Alternatives Investment Committee. Gavin serves on a number of portfolio company boards for USS as well as a number of advisory boards for infrastructure funds.

Gavin has worked in the infrastructure sector in the UK and Australia for fifteen years. Prior to joining USS, Gavin was a Director at Equitix Limited. Earlier in his career, Gavin was an Investment Director of ING’s European infrastructure fund having previously been a founder member of Merrill Lynch’s global infrastructure investments business. Gavin also spent five years as a member of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia’s infrastructure and privatisation team.

Gavin graduated with an honours degree in Law from the University of Edinburgh. He is a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland.

Gavin is a director of The Airline Group Limited and a member of the Remuneration Committee.
Richard Keys

He is also a Council member of the University of Birmingham.

He retired from PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2010 where he was a former senior partner and Global Chief Accountant.

Richard will become a member of the audit and nomination committees.
Tony Tyler, IATA Director General and CEO

  He has over three decades of airline industry experience.
Prior to joining IATA, Tony built his career at John Swire & Sons in Hong Kong. He joined the company in 1977 and in 1978 moved within the Swire Group to Cathay Pacific Airways, rising to the position of Chief Executive (2007 to 2011). During that time he served on the IATA Board of Governors, including as its Chairman from June 2009 to June 2010.

Tony, a British national, was born in Egypt in 1955 and graduated from Oxford University in Jurisprudence. He has broad international working experience in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, the Philippines and the United Kingdom. At IATA, he works from both its main offices in Montreal, Canada and Geneva, Switzerland. He is a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.
Richard Deakin, Chief Executive Officer

Before NATS, Richard was Senior Vice President of the Air Systems Division for Thales and a member of the company’s Executive Committee.

Based in Paris, his division recorded a turnover of €1.8bn and employed 7,000 staff across the world.
Richard’s career started more than 25 years ago as an engineering apprentice at BAE Systems, where he spent 17 years in a number of roles, latterly as Vice-President Commercial Aerospace, based at Farnborough.

Moving to TRW Aeronautical Systems as European Operations Director, Richard ran nine factories in the UK, France and Germany producing high precision aerospace systems.
Before joining Thales, Richard spent several years as Group Director Programmes with GKN Aerospace Services.

A Chartered Engineer, Richard holds a first-class honours degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Kingston University and an MBA from Cranfield School of Management.

He is also a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Engineering from Kingston University in January 2008.
Martin Rolfe,  Managing Director Operations

Previously Martin worked for Lockheed Martin where he was Managing Director of the UK Civil business.

Martin has worked in the air traffic management domain for 18 years leading large multinational teams across Europe, the US, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the Far East, with customers including air navigation service providers, central government departments and military organisations.
Chris Bennett, Finance Director, Monarch Airlines

Chris is Finance Director of Monarch Airlines and prior to joining Monarch in 2010 worked for British Airways and easyJet, specialising in strategic financial planning roles. He began his career with Price Waterhouse where he qualified as a Chartered Accountant. He is a director of The Airline Group Limited and holds a private pilot licence.
Chris is a member of the Audit Committee.
Andy Lord,  Director of Operations, BA

Andy graduated from Manchester University in 1992 with an honours degree in Mechanical Engineering, having joined British Airways in 1989 as part of the airline’s sponsored Engineering Undergraduate programme. On completing his apprenticeship, Andy held a number of technical and design engineer positions before moving to Flight Operations in 1996. He has worked overseas and throughout the UK and is still the only non-flying manager in BA’s history to have held the position of Chief Pilot. He moved to Operations in 2004.

Andy was appointed Director of Operations in January 2009. He is responsible for the delivery of customer service at all airports worldwide, excluding Gatwick, for the control & performance, safety, compliance & IT systems of the worldwide operation, and corporate business resilience. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of BA CityFlyer, a Director of The Airline Group Ltd, and a Non-executive Director of National Air Traffic Services (NATS) Holdings Ltd. Andy is married with two sons and a daughter. His interests include aviation, travel and all sports, but especially rugby union, cricket and golf.
Baroness Dean of Thornton-Le-Fylde

Brenda is Chairman of Covent Garden Market Authority, a non-executive director of Taylor Wimpey plc. She was previously Chair of the Freedom to Fly Coalition, the Armed Forces Pay Review Body and the Housing Corporation and General Secretary of the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades. Brenda was created a life peer in 1993 and sits on the Labour benches in the House of Lords. Brenda chairs the NATS Employee Sharetrust and is a member of the Remuneration Committee.
Iain McNicoll CB CBE

Iain served 35 years in the Royal Air Force, retiring in 2010 as an Air Marshal. In his last appointment he was responsible for generating and delivering all of the RAF’s front line operational capability.

He was a member of the Air Command main Board and co-chaired the principal Board sub-committee. He had RAF responsibility for all safety and environmental matters, and was the RAF’s first Chief Information Officer.

His military flying totalled over 4300 hours, the majority piloting fast-jet aircraft, including on operations in the Middle East and the Balkans, but he has also flown multi-engine, helicopter and training aircraft.

Iain is now an aerospace, defence and security consultant. He is a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and a Chartered Director Member of the Institute of Directors. He is also a non-executive director of Jee Ltd, a subsea engineering consultancy and training company.

Iain chairs the NATS Safety Review Committee and is a member of the Technical Review Committee.


Some of the directors are 'long in the tooth', doyens of a bygone aviation era. A bit like Concorde still capable of flying, but the financial liability grounded them. Apply the same logic to the NATS main Board Directors, who must collectively carry the can for yesterdays catastrophic computer breakdown, or 'cock up' as it was described by Channel 4 News. They should go. That of course is up to the shareholders..   And as to fixing the glitch? They probably should just turn the computer off and back on again.  Works for me..

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