Thinking back through the major crises I’ve worked through during my professional life – from 9/11 and the 2010 ash cloud, through to SARS and the financial crash – nothing has come close to the impact that the COVID-19 outbreak is having on both our industry and own lives in general.
At time of writing, air traffic volumes in the UK are down 77%, behind Germany (80%), France, (82%), Spain (85%) and Italy (88%). It seems certain that the UK’s numbers will fall further as repatriation flights end this week, although there remains great uncertainty around the medium and long-term impact all this will have on the global aviation industry and its ability to recover once the crisis has passed.
During this time, myself and the rest of the leadership team here at NATS have had two priorities; to look after our people and protect the critical operation on which the country still depends at a time like this.
Visualisation showing 25 March 2019 – 6,224 flights – and 25 March 2020 – 1,415 flights, A 77% drop.
Aviation is core to the UK’s global trading position and its future economic prosperity. Neither airlines nor airports can function without air traffic control to keep airspace open and manage it safely. It is part of the UK’s critical national infrastructure. We also need to continue to support those aircraft that are still flying, including military, air ambulance, police, and goods delivered via air freight, much of which is currently made up of medical supplies and equipment.
Doing this means asking our controllers and engineers – as designated key workers – to come into work, something that exposes them and their families to additional risk. We are taking every step possible to protect them. In our control centres at Swanwick and Prestwick it’s possible to maintain a level of ‘social distancing’ although that’s harder in the smaller environment of an airport control tower. We are also reducing staffing levels where it’s safe and appropriate to do so in line with falling traffic, while ensuring controller working positions are cleaned at handover times and between shifts.
Ensuring controller licences remain valid during the downturn is also a concern and one we’re talking through with the CAA. We need to be ready to support the recovery when it comes. As for those of us who can work from home, we are settling into strange new working patterns just like everyone else in the UK and further afield.
From a business perspective, just as our airline and airports customers are doing, we are taking whatever steps are necessary to protect ourselves and offer what support we can in the short, medium and long term. NATS is a prudent company in keeping with the serious nature of the role we play. We have enough funding to survive short term shocks. However, the nature of this crisis is sufficiently severe that we have had to take action quickly and decisively across the company to ensure the reduced cashflow we are now experiencing as a result of fewer flights is offset by appropriate actions on our part.
We are doing everything sensible to reduce costs, as you would expect at a time like this. However, the fixed nature of our costs combined with the need to protect ongoing services and retain the capacity to support the industry’s eventual recovery, limits the action we can take. We therefore will not make knee-jerk decisions today that will then impair our ability to support the recovery of the wider UK aviation sector when it eventually happens.
This is without a doubt the most challenging situation I have ever experienced in my working life. People are understandably anxious and yet every day I hear of new stories of colleagues supporting each other and finding ways through to make sure we can continue to provide what remains a vital service – crises such as these really do bring out the best in people. I have never been prouder to lead this organisation and know that by working together we will see out this storm.
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