Air safety concerns rising in Britain

There is a growing concern over air safety in Britain. According to flight controllers at England's National Air Traffic Control Center at West Drayton, Britain's air safety net is stretched to its limits. Each day, as many as 3,700 planes take off and land at London's four airports. British Air traffic has risen 25 percent in the past year. ``This summer, we've reached the saturation point,'' says Steve Hall, of Britain's Guild of Air Traffic Control Officers. ``There are too many planes to manage under standard procedures, so for the first time we're having to use constant flow control, and that means delays.''

Adding to the delays are frequent computer failures at West Drayton. The IBM 9020 computer used to organize flight control data was designed for US air traffic in the 1960s. Last year it ``went down'' (shut off) on many occasions, for a total of 17 hours. Installation of a new air traffic computer is another five years off.

With the immediate prospects of busier skies and continued air traffic computer trouble, Mr. Hall says morale is at an all-time low among Britain's roughly 1,300 air traffic controllers. Some controllers complain Britain's Civil Air Authority (CAA) is putting pressure on controllers to increase productivity because of increasing competition from private air traffic control firms. The CAA recently lost air traffic control contracts at Bournemouth and Liverpool to a subsidiary of communications conglomerate British Telecom.

In Britain, private air traffic control firms are allowed to compete for business against the CAA's own National Air Traffic Services (NATS). With the privatization this summer of seven of Britain's busiest airports, there soon will be competition for the lucrative contracts once reserved for NATS.

``One company says, `we can do the job with just five controllers' and the CAA says `we can do the job, too, but we'll need six controllers,''' Hall explains. ``There's no evidence that this has happened yet, but I can see a conflict of interest developing.''

According to William Tench, retired Chief of the Air Accident Investigation branch in Britain's Department of Transport, ``The CAA is supported by the government, but it has a directive to pay its own way. It can't continue to be a burden on the taxpayer and survive as it is. So the chairman of the CAA constantly has in the back of his mind, `How much does [a safe air traffic control system] cost?'''

In response to the growing concerns over air traffic safety, the CAA last month announced a 200 million investment over the next five years to update equipment. The equipment will include a ``conflict alert'' system similar to a system already in use in the US which warns controllers of the possibility of air misses.

``200 million pounds is just over the cost of a single jumbo jet,'' says Hall. Is that all we should be spending to keep hundreds of those jets flying safely?

The CAA's Ron Toseland resents intimations of penny pinching over safety, saying that international standards of air safety will never be compromised.

``Paradoxically, air safety is increasing despite the increasing volume of air traffic,'' Mr. Toseland adds. The CAA says the number of ``risk-bearing air misses'' (near misses with a high risk of collision) has fallen from 92 in 1976 to 66 in 1985. But the assertion that ``air safety is increasing has been brought into question by a confidential NATS report obtained by a London paper.

The report, published in last Sunday's Observer, details new figures covering the last four months of 1986. The official review states that the new figures ``are outstanding for the number of air-misses reported,'' and it shows mid-air incidents occurring at near-record rates. In the last quarter of 1986 alone, 57 near-miss reports were filed. ``Risk-bearing'' incidents rose to 26 compared with 18 in the same period of 1985.

The report quotes NATS Group Captain J. Maitland, who concedes what controllers have long said: many near misses go unreported. One air safety expert estimates as many as 80 percent of all incidents never make it to the CAA's files.

Due to controllers' complaints, the Guild of Air Traffic Control Officers soon will ask the government for an independent reevaluation of air traffic control services.

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