Travellers face disruption threat due to air traffic controller shortage

Airline passengers could face delays and cancellations this summer because of staff shortages in UK air traffic control rooms which may cause problems for years, aviation experts fear. 

Travellers may suffer last-minute disruption because National Air Traffic Services (Nats) has been struggling to replace retiring controllers, insiders have warned. More than a third could leave in the space of five years. 

Staff shortages led to hundreds of flights being cancelled throughout last summer, affecting Gatwick, Heathrow and Glasgow airports. Nats believes its workforce will be sufficient this year but Ryanair says the situation is still “unacceptable”. 

Concerns also remain about the ageing Nats computer system. This left thousands of passengers stranded in chaotic scenes last August when it suffered a rare glitch and airliners had to be grounded. 

Staffing is the most pressing issue, however, and one retired controller who still has contacts serving at Nats told i that it “will go on for a couple of years at least”. 

“The situation isn’t going to get dramatically better any time soon, so delays and cancellations won’t either,” he said. “If demand goes up, it may well get worse.”  

Aviation analyst John Grant of the travel data firm OAG agreed. “This summer will be tight, and indeed summers for the next few years,” he said. This “unfortunate situation” was the result of “really poor planning by Nats”, he added. 

Industry insiders warn there could be more disruption to air travel caused by problems at Nats this year (Photo: DANIEL LEAL / AFP via Getty Images)
Industry insiders warn there could be more disruption to air travel caused by problems at Nats this year (Photo: Daniel Leal/AFP)

Nats admits the staffing situation is difficult but the part-privatised company argues it has been working urgently to address this. 

It says that extra trainees and fewer retirements than expected recently, combined with lower air traffic forecasts and special overtime agreements, should provide enough controllers this year. 

However, news this month of airlines expecting record bookings for summer flights will put further pressure on airport control towers and the Swanwick centre which manages London’s busy airspace. 

Industry experts are at pains to emphasise that this does not pose a safety risk to the public. There are strict rules in the UK on how often controllers must take breaks, how long their working days are and how many flights they can each oversee.  

But these high standards mean that when there are insufficient staff on duty, flights are delayed, diverted or grounded at short notice to ensure controllers can still do their jobs properly. 

A serving controller who works in the south-east of England said: “There is a controller shortage, no doubt about that.” 

He said that any disruption is not the fault of his colleagues, who are highly skilled and take pride in their jobs – but when there are absences, “bottlenecks” of delayed flights are unavoidable because “sectors get reduced down” in capacity. 

Air traffic in the London region is controlled at the Nats centre in Swanick, Hampshire (Photo: Nats)
Air traffic in the London region is controlled at the Nats centre in Swanwick, Hampshire (Photo: Nats)

Speaking to i, Nats chief operations officer Kathryn Leahy accepted that there is “no question” it will be “a busy summer”. “I am doing everything I possibly can with my teams to be ready to tackle that demand,” she said.  

Ms Leahy wants to “protect” people’s travel plans, but added: “We are very transparent with our airport customers about the level of resourcing that we hold, where we may have challenging days, and how we adjust.” 

Nats stresses that the vast majority of flights operate without any delays caused by its operations. It handles 24 per cent of European air traffic, but is responsible for just 1.5 per cent of delays.  

Strikes by airport staff or European controllers, workforce issues at airlines or foreign airspace management centres, flight diversions caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and extreme weather, all pose bigger threats to the holiday plans of most British fliers according to experts. 

When shortages do hit the UK’s air traffic control rooms, however, unlucky families can find themselves stuck for hours or even days while expensive and long-awaited itineraries are wrecked.  

This is especially galling for the public because they count as “extraordinary circumstances”, meaning no compensation is paid by airlines for delays or cancellations. 

Ryanair is scathing of the Nats leadership. A spokesperson for the airline said: “Nats air traffic control continues to be an inefficient shambles which threatens passengers’ travel plans… Repeated Nats failures are unacceptable and make clear that it is time for overpaid CEO, Martin Rolfe, to go and let someone competent take over.”  

The problems have been raised in Parliament. Labour’s Baroness Ritchie alerted peers in September to the “immense inconvenience” suffered by travellers, following a series of “staffing issues which resulted in delays and cancellations”.