What Went Wrong On December 12 And Could It Happen Again?

PIt’s all a bit up in the air as to which computer actually went down on December 12, causing severe disruption across UK airspace. The national air traffic agency NATS is not saying so it’s only conjecture really at this stage.

NATS chief executive Richard Deakin’s remarks to the BBC strongly indicate that the problem – ‘the single line of code’ – was in the en route NERC system which was developed in the 1990s by Lockheed Martin. If so, a failure here could have resulted in an inability to distribute flight plans to London area controllers.

The business’ NAS flight data processor is much older but it may be that an error in NERC caused a failure in the NAS, or even NERC-NAS communications, which would have impacted ‘bandboxing’ or the combining of sectors in the London area centre. What actually provoked the failure is not known at this stage, either.

At the end of the day, NAS is very old technology which is hard to maintain and update. NATS does have a solution in the pipeline, however, with a €67 million (USD86 million) plan to introduce a highly advanced flight data processing technology called iTEC-EFDP.

This is being developed by Spain’s Indra for the iTEC consortium which is led by NATS, together with the national air navigation service providers of both Germany and Spain.

Indra is currently installing iTEC at NATS’ Prestwick facility under contract from NATS which should be fully operational in early 2016. Because iTEC will have full redundancy, computer failures of the type which had such a severe impact on December 12 should become a thing of the past.

The disruption seen on Friday really speaks more to the challenges of providing air traffic control services in one of the most highly congested airspace regions of the world.

No system can ever be perfect and if it was it would be so complex that it would naturally be reflected in ticket prices. Last year, when NATS suffered a ground communications system failure, it still managed to run 90 per cent of an extremely busy schedule of flights and resumed normal operations within 14 hours.

It is useful to remember that it took the US Federal Aviation Administration 14 days to get the Chicago area control centre back up and running in October when a contractor set fire to critical infrastructure. That was an entirely different cause of system failure but as part of a review, the FAA said it would take its managers a whole year to put in place a contingency strategy and policies to achieve service levels of 90 per cent capacity within 24 hours.

So even though NATS seems to be at fault, it really did an excellent job in restoring airspace capacity within hours on December 12. The delays were severe but this is more a reflection on the huge impact a relatively minor glitch can have on a system that is working at or near capacity.

The kill-date determining when exactly NATS dispenses with the ageing NAS and NERC will no doubt be an issue that figures prominently in an imminent review ordered by its regulator. In assessing adequate levels of resilience, the UK Civil Aviation Authority will be examining how NATS plans to be fit not just for a future that is still some years off, but in the here and now too.

Read More:
Paradigm Shift NATS plans to replace its ageing flight data processing technology with a highly advanced tool called  iTEC-EFDP which is being developed by Spain’s Indra for the iTEC consortium.
Learning Curve December 7, 2013, started like any other Saturday with controllers expecting business as usual. It certainly didn’t turn out that way as Aimée Turner reports.

Posted in CAAs/ANSPs, News

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