It’s safe to say that 2020 has not been the 100th anniversary year for air traffic control that anyone expected. This time last year we were just emerging from a record-breaking summer, with traffic well over 8,000 movements a day at its peak.

Yesterday we handled 2,886 flights.

Barely a week goes by now where we do not hear more difficult news of job losses and restructures from airline and airport colleagues around the world and NATS is not immune from what’s happening in the wider industry.

In our response to the impact the pandemic is having on the aviation industry, we have prioritised protecting operational jobs to ensure we have the capacity to manage traffic when it returns to 2019 levels. That’s why we did not include our controllers in the voluntary redundancy programme we launched in August, under which we will sadly say goodbye to several hundred of our non-operational colleagues by November.

However, as it stands the industry is not predicting a return to 2019 traffic levels until 2024 or even 2025, which means painful decisions cannot be avoided.

These traffic predictions mean we can be reasonably certain that we already have sufficient qualified operational staff and trainees on our units to deliver the services required of us for the foreseeable future. Over the past seven weeks, therefore, we have been working with the Prospect trade union to review the need for trainee controllers in the business over coming years.

We currently have 397 employees at various stages of their ATC training, this includes 275 based in operational units around the country, with the remaining 122 in our training college. However, given the low level of traffic, none of them are currently able to progress their training and they are all on furlough.

Given the unprecedented impact of the pandemic, the review concluded there is no realistic scenario in which we will need further trainees from the college until 2022 at the earliest. In fact, we will not have any capacity to support further new trainees at Swanwick, our biggest operational centre, for the next two years.

On Monday we therefore took the reluctant step of notifying the 122 trainees in our college that we would not be able to continue their training.

We are offering these employees an option of a special voluntary exit package or the possibility of redeployment elsewhere in the business, depending on whether any roles become available. If we are unable to redeploy them by the end of October then their contracts will come to an end in November.

We’re acutely aware of what this means for all these individuals, and we have put support in place to help them as much as we can during this difficult time and we are guaranteeing that we will stay in touch with any who do leave the business to ensure they have a prioritised opportunity to re-join us as soon as we re-start college training.

We are committed to recruiting and training future controllers and we are not stopping any other training activities nor are we closing our college. We have 275 trainees who have already passed through the college and are waiting to start or re-start their on-the-job training at units. They are unaffected by this announcement.

This news is disappointing for all of us and not a step we ever wanted to take or thought we would need to take when the trainees joined us. I have been clear throughout the pandemic that we cannot escape the reality facing the aviation industry and that the current situation would inevitably bring difficult and painful decisions. It has been done in the interests of ensuring NATS is best placed to continue providing the vital service that the industry, the country and the travelling public will need over the coming months and years.


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