I’ve worked in air traffic control operations in NATS for pretty much all of my adult life. In that time I’ve seen my fair share of incidents and disruption to air travel some of which have triggered a mass diversion, when multiple aircraft need to divert to an alternate airport.

It’s a common misconception that pilots can simply tell Air Traffic Control to which airport they’d like us to direct them. Airport operators need information like “who will be the handling agent?”, “how many animals are on board the flight?” and “can we have the nationalities of everyone on board?” to assess their ability to process the diverted flight. All of which must be relayed to flight crews and responses provided before requests can be considered.

Incidents involving multiple concurrent diversion requests happen a few times a year, which is why in the UK we have a relatively mature procedure for dealing with these events. Across Europe, we’re seen somewhat as an industry leader, as the only country with a coordinated mass diversion response, and many other countries are looking to adopt similar principles. These situations are great examples of close collaboration within the industry to get aircraft safely on the ground. From a personal perspective, leading the team can be hugely rewarding as we pull together to handle the situation safely, but it can also be frustrating for those involved.

About 9 months ago the State Safety Partnership Program invited NATS to input into a new tool being developed by EUROCONTROL – our industry partners – to help in this area. Part of this is to provide evidence to the project to continue development, after all there’s no point in spending effort on something which isn’t palatable. Fast forward a few months of painstaking preparation and countless planning meetings and the day had arrived to do a full scale UK exercise.

42 cross industry stakeholders gathered on January 19th 2024 to test the prototype. Airlines, Airports and NATS operations made up most of the participants with members of the CAA and DfT also in attendance.

We tested the MASSDIV tool by using a scenario from 2022 and played it in real-time to allow stakeholders to make decisions using data, to assess ground capacity and provide diversion options. Participants were provided with initial trigger events which led to an improvised situation. We simulated controllers communicating with pilots, ACARS Teams messages from airlines, and phone calls between supervisors at the centres and operation managers at airports – all in the spirit of putting the new tool through its paces.

Inside the room, there was a hive of activity closely resembling operations at our centres, airports and airlines.

Feedback from the exercise was positive and focused on improvements needed before introducing the tool into service. This includes more work on the user interface, hurdles to overcome in the regulatory oversight, and national and international procedures will all need to be developed. Whilst this won’t be a quick turnaround, the assembled team agreed that we should develop the concept to bring it to adoption.  Only two days after the trial, some of the participants were on duty during the disruption experienced during Storm Isha and contacted me directly to tell me how useful this tool would have been on the day.

The industry has tried hard to deliver further improvement for a number of years – MASSDIV is the third idea from EUROCONTROL to deliver a solution. It is heartening to see the positivity around this project which needs collaboration across the whole industry to shape the outcome, making sure the formal requirements are right at the early stages. Tool support is obviously important but more so is having everyone together in the same room, with a common vision and aspiration – that’s a great place to start.


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