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Critical Support

15 June 2005

Creating the right conditions in which air traffic controllers can concentrate while they manage the skiesabove us, and keeping the power and building systems running at all times, is the responsibility of EMCOR. Jane Fenwick reports from NATS, wanwick

APOPULAR DINNER TABLE conversation these days is to compare ‘amazing’ deals on low cost flights to destinations across Europe – and beyond. Taking quick cheap breaks to the sun or snow seems to have quickly become part of modern living.

Meanwhile, for those responsible for keeping a growing number of planes in the sky safely separated by distance and height, the task is immense and expanding. National Air Traffic Services (NATS) provides air traffic control services to aircraft flying in UK airspace and over the eastern part of the North Atlantic.The ‘en route’ air traffic control and air management services handle more than 2.2million flights in 2004/2005 carrying more than180million passengers. There are currently four centres – London Area Control at Swanwick, Hampshire, London Terminal Control Centre (LTCC) at West Drayton, Middlesex, Scottish Area Control Centre and Oceanic Area Control Centre at Prestwick, Ayshire and Manchester Area Control Centre at Manchester Airport.

By 2012, the number of flights expected to use UK airspace will reach over three million, much of this growth arising from low cost airline travel. With a growth agenda on this scale, NATS is undergoing a major investment and rationalisation programme. A £1bn investment programme in new technology was made possible by the PPP won in 2001 by The Airline Group, a consortium of seven British leading airlines that acquired a 46 per cent stake in the company, 4 per cent of which was secured by BAA. NATS employees have a 5 per cent shareholding while the Government retains a 49 per cent stake. NATS is the first national air traffic provider in Europe to be run in the private sector.

The £1bn investment will renew and upgrade all radar facilities, rationalise control centres, renew the flight data processing system, and create a data and communications ring between all NATS sites in the UK which can be extended into Europe. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and the dramatic downturn in the aviation industry that followed, the company embarked on financial restructuring to ensure the business could still deliver on the promises of the PPP. BAA and the Government each invested an additional £65m.

NATS’ Futures Centres Programme is now well underway. In the next few years, the four ‘en route’ centres are to be reduced to two with West Drayton relocating to Swanwick, and Manchester relocating to Prestwick where a new £60m 8,000 sq m centre and operations room is currently under construction. At Swanwick, a second operations room is being fitted out ready to receive the LTCC from West Drayton from where it will control all flights descending into and climbing out of London’s regional airports into airspace above south east England, and then ‘hand them on’ to the controllers in the existing ‘en route’ control centre in the same building.

The computer systems that support NATS air traffic control activities are complex, and the building that houses the operation at Swanwick is designed to support NATS’ air traffic control function at all times. The possibility of failure is unacceptable but should it happen, there is enough spare capacity for any eventuality. EMCOR has been responsible for the M&E at Swanwick, Prestwick and training college and system development centre at Hurn in Bournemouth. The new Corporate Technical Centre (CTC) and HQ at Whitely, Hampshire currently under construction, were added in 2004.

The Swanwick centre is the biggest of these. The operations room could contain 10 tennis courts and the controllers handle 1.8million flights a year. Keeping this operations room functioning at all times is a key role and all the systems for power, heating and cooling, fire control, and so on, have to be maintained and operating in full order. Located beneath the operations rooms, the plant rooms are divided into two zones - A and B. Within each zone, there is dual redundancy on all plant so that should one unit fail, the other will take up the load. These A and B systems provide heat and chilled water and are fed by two A and B power streams. As Collin Gallaugher, EFS Strategic Account Manager and NATS FM Manager, Mike Thomson, explained, site has been designed to be resilient to failures , or to be switched between the two systems.

Swanwick derives its power from the national grid but it also has massive back up generators and UPS systems to ensure that even in the absolute worst case scenario of both the grid and generators failing, power is maintained for 40 minutes. This is more than enough time for the air traffic controllers to ensure flights in UK airspace are safely handed over to other centres. It is reassuring to know that the generators are tested every week and run on full load to export power to the grid. Powerful UPS systems also ensure that if power is lost to the lighting system, at least a third of the lighting will be kept active at any time.

EMCOR has a full view of all the plant from its control room where its engineers can open and close valves, switch between A and B systems and monitor the whole building through its building and electrical management systems (BMS and EMS). EMCOR is also currently converting Swanwick’s second operations room which until recently was occupied by NATS system support suppliers Lockhead Martin, as the operations room for occupation by the LTCC relocating from West Drayton. It is virtually a duplicate of the ‘en route’ operations room in the same building.

The EMCOR team clearly regards its work as more than just an M&E contract. The EMCOR and NATS team meets on a monthly basis. As Gallaugher explained, “These are strategic meetings that look at the strategic intent of M&E and how that helps NATS reach its strategic goals.’

EMCOR sees its role with NATS as being not only provision of planned and corrective maintenance, configuration management and delivery of operational safety performance, cost management and statutory compliance, but also risk management. The team is developing a risk management model to identify potential failures and to see how far these might ‘ripple’ through the structure. As Thomson explained, “This dependency model links together all the elements of the contract. For example, if we decide to change a supplier, we can feed the parameters of the supplier such as geographical coverage, financial strength, membership of professional organisations etc, and the model shows where we need to manage the risk. We can then make an objective decision on changing a contractor – or not – and we can show the reasons why.”

Consistency across all the sites it manages is another goal for the EMCOR team. As Thomson explained, “Each site has its own way of doing things within the NATS management system, and they have developed their own cultures. The cultural differences between the sites have been eroded and now the aim is to drive contract performance measures and a consistent approach across all the NATS sites for which EMCOR is responsible.”

A completely open book and open dialogue between EMCOR and NATS has grounded trust in the relationship. NATS has access to all contractor invoices together with EMCOR’s performance data. This open and strategic approach has reduced NATS’ M&E costs by more than 10 per cent - that’s £millions.

Crucial to NATS’ modernisation strategy is bringing its four control centres into just two. Equally crucial to this strategy is that the facilities are brought under common management and M&E processes and procedures, and best practice is translated across all the sites. The EMCOR team has this target well in its sights.

Meanwhile, NATS could be expanding its interests outside the UK as the Single European Sky initiative to harmonise air traffic management across Europe takes shape. This initiative will bring significant changes to Europe’s air traffic control systems over the next five to ten years. NATS expects to be a key player in these changes in Europe.

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