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Lack of air traffic control staff delaying flights, according to investigation

The Civil Aviation Authority says Nats, based in Swanwick, Hampshire, has “too few operational staff” following significant cuts.

The UK’s largest air traffic control provider has been told to improve its contingency planning after Ryanair claimed staff shortages were delaying flights.

An investigation by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) found that Nats, based in Swanwick, Hampshire, had “too few operational staff” following significant cuts, short-term sickness and a reluctance by controllers to do voluntary overtime.

The regulator said Nats needs to boost its resilience by better understanding how shortfalls in resources affect airlines and airports.

Ryanair claimed air traffic control staff shortages were delaying flights (Rui Vieira/PA)

Ryanair complained that more than 100,000 of its passengers in London were disrupted due to flights delayed by Nats’ staffing shortages in the first half of last year.

In June 2016 some 139 flights to or from the capital were delayed by a total of around 5,000 minutes because of the issue, the Dublin-based carrier said.

Stansted Airport in Essex accused Nats of discriminating against airlines using its airport in favour of those at Heathrow Airport, in west London.

It stated that it was the worst performing airport in the UK for air traffic control-related delays in April 2016.

Stansted accused Nats of discriminating against airlines using the airport (Chris Radburn/PA)

On the weekend of July 2 and 3 last year controller shortages meant just 10 flights per hour were allowed to land at the airport, down 65% on normal aircraft movements, according to Stansted.

The CAA concluded that Nats had not breached its licence obligations, but did make a series of recommendations.

Richard Moriarty, the CAA’s director of consumers and markets, said: “This is the first time that the CAA has used its investigatory powers under the Transport Act 2000 and highlights the potential seriousness of the complaint raised.

“In this instance our investigation has found no compliance breach, however improvements to operational resilience are key to ensuring service delivery levels are maintained in our increasingly busy airspace.”

Nats controls 2.5 million flights per year (Steve Parsons/PA)

A Nats spokeswoman said: “We welcome the CAA’s confirmation today that Nats has fulfilled the requirements of its licence and the Transport Act 2000. This followed a lengthy investigation by the CAA after a complaint was made nearly a year ago.

“The safe air traffic control service that we provide to 2.5 million flights per year is recognised by our customers as one of the best and most resilient anywhere in the world.

“We continually seek to refine our operation particularly in light of the substantial and unforeseen growth of traffic across the South East of the UK since early 2016. Consequently, we are pleased to confirm that we have already taken a number of the actions referred to in the CAA’s report.”

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