Clear skies ahead

first_img Comments are closed. Previous Article Next Article Clear skies aheadOn 19 Aug 2003 in Personnel Today Related posts:No related photos. Airtraffic control in the UK went through turbulent times in 2002, but theappointment of a new general manager signalled a change of fortune, and theNational Air Traffic Service is now firmly back on course. Ross Wigham reportsFlyingis supposed to be the ultimatefreedom and as your holiday jet cruises ataltitude, it can often feel like the only plane in the sky. It’s not. Onaverage, there are another 9,999 planes in the air somewhere around the world,with about 5,300 air movements per day controlled from the UK.Thereality is that the skies around the UK are filled with aircraft taking off,landing or en-route to somewhere else, all of which have to be controlled fromthe ground.Despitethe fact the UK has the largest amount of air traffic outside the US, theorganisation in charge of controlling the skies has been in crisis for the lastyear.TheNational Air Traffic Service (NATS) has been blighted by delays, poor employeerelations, recruitment difficulties, equipment problems and a continuallypostponed move to a new £623m nerve centre at Swanwick in Hampshire.Addingto its problems was a rocky transfer from public to private ownership.Eventsreached a nadir when staff threatened to go on strike over pay and a lack ofconsultation – a situation compounded by staff shortages, overwork and mistakeswith the new computer system.Thishad a direct effect on the public, with average delays of 2.6 minutes per flightand, at its worst, there were more than 900,000 minutes of delays in just onemonth.Theman brought in to resolve the situation was general manager Paul Louden, aveteran of the organisation with 35 years service – 19 spent as an air trafficcontroller at Heathrow airport.Onhis appointment a year ago, he immediately set about building closer links withthe main union, Prospect, to try to heal the rift with staff and get theorganisation moving in the right direction.”Weknew we had to fix our problems with the unions because as a company we werebleeding badly last year. Staff also needed to believe in the company morebecause we’re totally reliant on the staff to deliver,” says Louden.”HRalso had to start working with staff to re-build some trust and establishrelationships on an individual level.”Thefirst problem was the move to new Swanwick headquarters, which was 80 milesaway from the old centre (which is still in use) at West Drayton, near Heathrow.Loudenalso needed to regain the trust of the controllers as many had concerns oversafety following the installation of new equipment and NATS’ privatisation.”Wewanted to assure people that going through privatisation has had no impact onsafety. British Airways and the British Airports Authority are both privatecompanies and nobody questions their safety. There was a lot of resistance toprivatisation from staff,” he says.Togetherwith Prospect, he agreed a new approach to employee relationships conductedthrough a partnership approach called ‘Working Together’.TheWorking Together document stated exactly how the union and NATS should becommunicating – with a specific commitment to openness, honesty and discussion.NATSpromised to let the trade union representatives have more influence on thedecision-making process, problem solving, policy communication and training anddevelopment.”We’veworked hard with our staff and developed a partnership approach with the unionso we’re not in conflict. Working together is critical to us as is communicationwith our staff,” explains Louden.NATSalso built a new management team focusing more on the concerns of thecontrollers in the operations room, and used HR to communicate and negotiatewith the 1,200 strong workforce.”Allthe evidence shows that if you need to make major changes you [should] do itslowly. However, we built a new centre, introduced a new computer system andaltered the way people work. In hindsight, we should have done things moreslowly and the fact the project was late didn’t help,” he says.Becauseof the communications problems and the resentment that had grown around it, HRset up a graffiti board where staff could ask questions and raise issuesanonymously.Amanagement group was then set up to look at solutions and report back on whatwas being done to resolve matters.SharonJohnson, HR manager at Swanwick, says the idea helped get problems out in theopen and was a starting point for improving relations with the controllers.”Wefound that confidence soon grew and people were putting serious questions to usabout the organisation. This was the start of the improved dialogue,” shesays.HRalso worked on the organisation’s core values to see what the staff wanted fromthem. Staff from across NATS were put into groups to give feedback on what theyactually expected and needed.”Operationalstaff had been quite insular because their job is so important and safetycritical. It’s been good to get people together and get a broader perspectiveso they can contribute to the whole site.”Afterseveral meetings, the groups drew up literature to raise awareness and getfeedback on the changes within the company and its core values.However,there were still major problems around pay, conditions working patterns andstaff shortages, which Louden decided to handle with a new, conciliatoryapproach.”We’vemanaged to get rid of some conflict and the staff have bought into theseimprovements,” he says.”I’vetried to create an environment where staff can perform and they’ve done that inspades. Staff are the key element in the organisation.”Thenew centre provided a more comfortable environment to help staff deal with thechallenges of controlling aircraft  andLouden wanted the new management style to mirror this.”It’snot like in the movies where everybody is shouting and at each other’s throats.We’ve created a relaxed atmosphere where staff can concentrate and work in anincredibly focused way,” Louden says.Toreduce some of the shortages, NATS used the Working Together scheme to changethe way the UK’s 22 air sectors were operated and agreed a new overtime system.DavidLuxton, national secretary of Prospect, negotiated on the union side and agreedthe new overtime system that paid controllers an extra £500 per additionalshift.”Thiswas a breakthrough because it gave management the workforce flexibility itneeded and prevented the closing of air space,” he says.Italso helped reduce the delays from an average of 2.6 minutes last year to just1.5 minutes today. Although this was achieved following a reduction in flightsdue to 9/11, SARS and the war in Iraq, routes were becoming much more complexand budget airlines grew massively.”Thecloser relations have helped us to reach agreement and get results. Things likethe graffiti board helped because managers took ownership of theproblems,” he adds.Luxtonsays the talks have helped ease the atmosphere of distrust. Previously, many ofhis members were complaining about the prescriptive style of the managers andfelt there was nowhere to go with grievances.Althoughstaff also now feel more listened to, especially concerning safety andequipment, Luxton believes there is still much to be done.”Agood start has been made to addressing the issues, but we’re still working withNATS to address the problems of training, communication and trust betweenmanagers and staff.”Trainingis a particular concern as the current pass rate for new controllers is only 65per cent, which is adding to the staff shortages. However,NATS has just developed a much more sophisticated modelling system, whichshould improve this over the next five to six years.Recruitmentis still a major concern and Louden admits that even though around 100 newcontrollers are entering the service this year, he still needs more.”I’mconfident we have enough controllers to deliver the service, but I’m alsocertain we need to do more work on the way we select and train our new staff.”Facts–The new air traffic control centre at Swanwick cost £623m–Swanwick deals with more than2 million flights per year–The UK has the largest amount of air traffic outside the US–UK air traffic control deals with 5,300 air movements each day–London’s airports have 90 million passengers per at NATS before Louden’s arrivalNovember2002 – Staff threaten strike action after executives receive large bonusesdespite problems within the serviceNovember2002 – NATS admits passengers could face further delays because of staffshortages and computer problemsSeptember2002 – NATS is accused of sexism after placing a recruitment advertisemententitled ‘bird watching’ in lad’s magazine Loaded. It featured alongsideadverts for cannabis seed, sex lines and erotic websitesAugust2002 – Staff shortages intensified after it became clear just three newcontrollers would pass through training in 12 monthsAugust2002 – MPs attack the “cost-cutting and penny-pinching mentality” atNATSJuly2002 – The number of overload reports filed by staff doublesMay2002 – Staff admit to misreading the heights of planes and mistaking locationsbecause of confusing fonts on new computer systems last_img read more