Pushing Tin in a Pandemic – A Look at ATC Operations in the UK

Taken at Manchester International UK

LONDON – In the year generally held as the approximate centenary of Air Traffic Control. Martyn Cartledge looks at ATC operations in the UK and talks with NATS about its operations in the wake of COVID-19.

Tucked away in large en route centers and behind the glass, we see in the Visual Control Rooms at the top of the world’s airports ATC towers, are quiet and calm groups of men and women moving aircraft around the skies and airport ramps.

But just how do they do this and how has the near annihilation of air traffic, not only in the UK, but around the world affected operations?

ATC in the UK and beyond

To attempt to answer this question at both local level and in the wider world, I visited the Manchester NATS centre at Manchester Airport. This comprising of the Visual Control Room (VCR) and the small Area Control Room (ACR) situated in the new facility adjacent to the airports main Fire station.

ATC in the UK, unlike most countries, is split into two parts, that of en route and airfield with the en-route being a government contract and airfields being controlled with contracts awarded on a commercial basis.

Some airfields/operators like Liverpool, Doncaster, and Teesside run their own ATC and employ their own controllers directly. Others such as Manchester and in fact most, if not all of the major airfields in the UK, employ a contractor to supply ATC services in basically the same way as they would employ a contractor to clean the terminals.

It was once described to me by a previous ATC Manager as: “Its Manchester’s train set, we just get to push planes around it!”

Manchester Airport PLC (part of the Manchester Airports Group or MAG), has contracts with NATS who are probably the largest operator in the country and arguably the most well-known. In addition to ‘on airport operations,’ they have the Government contract to run the en-route service for the whole of the UK.

Manchester’s Facility

Entering the facility, it is almost like any office building. The company logo proudly displayed on the wall and doors leading off the corridors. For obvious reasons the Tower or VCR as it is more correctly termed, is right at the top.

Once inside, the overriding impression is of cool calmness. If you ignored the magnificent view of the airfield out of the panoramic windows you could almost think this was any other office workplace until, of course, you look at what is on the computer screens at each workstation.

Modern Air Traffic Control systems differ from the past, as what is seen on the controller’s screens is no longer the actual radar return with added information but a computer generated view based on those radar returns.

In fact, it is simply a much more complex version of the flight tracking apps widely available now, but one which allows for quite a lot of manipulation and flexibility to assist controllers in their work. The true radar screens are situated in the engineering department.

Manchester, however is just a small part of a system covering the country. Airspace around the world is divided into Flight information Regions (FIRs).

In the UK there are three; London (Covering England and Wales), Scottish (Covering Scotland and Northern Ireland), and Shanwick Oceanic, an area of over 700,000sq miles of the Atlantic Ocean.

Within each of the FIRs, there is both controlled and uncontrolled airspace. Areas of controlled airspace have both a type and a class with the type defining the purpose of the airspace.

These are Air Routes, where aircraft spend the most time in the cruise, consisting of airways which are similar but can have aircraft climbing or descending once away from an airport.

Control areas – Climbing and descending into/out of an airport, generally up to a height of 4000 feet, and finally control zones which are areas around an airfield up to a certain height. This ensures that all aircraft in the vicinity of an airport with commercial operations are under ATC control.

Taken at Manchester International UK

At Terminal or Area control centers, controllers manage a portion of the total airspace within its remit taking flights from, or passing them to, the controllers at the airport.

A Digital World

Everything is now digital, even down to the flight progress strips.

These simple yet successful products are still used to keep tabs on what the aircraft should be doing and with whom, it is just that these are now an editable image on a screen sent electronically from one controller to another containing information such as call sign, flight number, departure and destination airports, Aircraft type, ETA, ETD, and the SID or STAR.

It is also used, as the name suggests, as a means of recording the progress of the flight whereby controllers will mark the strip relating to the instructions given to the flight crew.

Although the equipment mentioned so far is of the utmost importance, it is by no means the only items at the disposal of controllers at an airport.

Each station is made up of an Aerodrome Traffic Monitor (ATM) to monitor aircraft in the air approaching/departing and flying in the vicinity of the airport with a Surface Movement Radar (SMR) to monitor aircraft and vehicles on the ground including runways and a Meteorological station and an Aerodrome Lighting Panel.

However all this technology is useless without one, very important, sensor, according to one controller. What are we talking about? That would be the: “Mark 1 eyeball.”


The calm environment of an ATC facility has of course become rather calmer recently with the country’s facilities handling traffic at just 10% in April and May before rallying recently to 40% of 2019 levels.

However you cannot just shut down air traffic control, you can’t take a laptop home with you and control what aircraft are left in the skies sat on the couch in your pajamas.

Furthermore, the companies providing ATC services have both the same issues as any other company affected by the pandemic as well as some quite specific ones. For example, just like aircrew, ATCOs need to maintain currency and this is very difficult with little amounts of traffic to control.

There are still aircraft flying. Freight, repatriation, air ambulance, military, and emergency services for example.

These flights need the same service they have always had meaning, as designated key workers, ATC personnel are still required to work, with the added pressures this will put on these members of staff possibly concerned like any other person of bringing the virus back to their families.

These points and social distancing issues were highlighted by CEO Martin Rolfe in a blog post in late March: “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. 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.”

With airports changing infrastructure use, new issues such as airlines using unfamiliar terminals creating the possibility of delays, NATS have been working with its airport customers to mitigate these, and other, challenges.

Clearly, the reduced traffic levels have required reduced staffing levels which on one hand eases the process of social distancing, however, just like in many other environments there is a need for extra work to help maintain a ‘COVID Secure’ environment.

Taken at Manchester International UK

Work stations are cleaned at handover and shift change times. For instance, Manchester has reverted to single runway operations which in turn reduces the number of staff required helping to distance in small environments like VCRs.

At large centres like Swanwick and Prestwick it is easier to maintain a level of social distancing.

On the other hand controllers, just like aircrew, not only need to remain current and therefore have a valid license, they need to keep up their ‘match fitness’ to avoid what Juliet Kennedy, NATS Operations Director, described as a “Skill fade” which is particularly valid for those working in procedural and technical roles.

With so few aircraft to work on this has been a challenge which has required working with the CAA to address the issue, the first stage being an extension period being applied to licensing requirements.

Working from home is, of course, not possible for ATCOs but for many of those performing office/administration functions, this has now become a reality and one that is unlikely to change for some time to come.


Like all organizations, NATS is no different in having to work on a reduced income. It’s En Route company NATS En Route Plc (NERL) earns money from each flight it manages.

This model and the rather fixed nature of many costs does limit the action that the company can use, when also having to keep an eye on the future.

NATS are also part of a wider European industry initiative called the Network Operations Recovery Plan which seeks to plan for a safe, efficient, and coordinated service during the recovery phase whenever that might happen.

This work is being coordinated in the UK through the CAA’s Industry Resilience Group. The Government has also established a Restart & Recovery Group looking at the wider implications for the UK aviation industry which the company sits on.

Juliet Kennedy had this to say about Government assistance regarding this situation: “Any future support package for aviation must include the payment of ATC charges, with further funding made available if needed to cover the shortfall in revenues due to the reduction in air traffic.”

“Airspace is a critical national infrastructure and must remain open and safe, not least for the continued flow of food, medicines, and supplies”


Does the current situation actually present opportunities? According to Ian Jopson, Head of Environmental and Community Affairs, it certainly does: “The severe fall in air traffic present a unique opportunity to accelerate aviation decarbonization, [something] the UK aviation industry has long been committed to”.

The company is looking to learn from the current low traffic levels to create its own ‘new normal’ out of a 70-year-old airspace structure design which currently does not make the best use of new aircraft performance capabilities.

It is wanting to rebuild in a carbon-efficient way and to liaise with airlines and airports to reduce local air pollution and noise.

NATS has made a commitment through sustainable Aviation to achieving net-zero CO2 emissions for the industry by 2050.

Building back better

The overriding buzz word is to ‘build back better’ and as Juliet Kennedy put it: “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity – we will never have another chance like this to change and adapt to deliver lasting improvements and long term benefits”

Modernizing airspace is a priority, not only on the aforementioned environmental basis, and is very much customer-led as Juliet continues: “Our airline and airport customers expect us to take this opportunity to find ways of doing things differently.”

“The pressures of our normal operation – managing traffic in some of the world’s busiest and most congested airspace – always constrains our ability to try out new things, but we have the chance to do that now.”

“So we’re looking at how to make the most of the opportunity opened up by uniquely low traffic levels to investigate efficiency improvements and try out different procedures safely. This is a truly exciting opportunity to see what we can do differently.”

However, in the short term, the issues are likely to revolve around ensuring there are enough controllers in the sectors facing increasing numbers as Juliet Kennedy went on to explain:

“When traffic levels increase, we must ensure that we avoid the ‘frog in the pan’ scenario, and we are working with our training, technical and competency teams to ensure we have robust strategies to get back to full ATC fitness so that our controllers remain fully able to manage traffic safely and efficiently as the volumes increase.”

This is now but what of the future?

NATS feels it can make its biggest contribution to a more sustainable future for flying by reshaping the UK’s network of airways and flight paths – allowing for more direct routes, more continuous descents and an end to airborne holding as we know it today, greatly reducing CO2 emissions.

With traffic levels set to remain lower than expected over the next few years, there will never be a better time to make those kinds of complex and fundamental changes.

Ian Jopson continues: “One thing is sure, post COVID-19 the climate crisis will still be here and aviation will remain in the spotlight. We have a great opportunity to ensure that when the traffic returns, it is to a more sustainable future where net zero is closer than we thought”.

Taken at Manchester International UK

Juliet Kennedy added: ”Modernising airspace is still our customers’ top priority. So we must keep the pressure on. We are still hopeful that, with some funding assistance from the Government, the wider Future Airspace Strategy Implementation (FASI) program being coordinated by the Airspace Change Organising Group (ACOG) with NATS and the airports, can stay on track for this decade.”

These are challenging times for all of us, however at NATS it seems everything is calm and organized, aircraft are directed smoothly into and out of Britains airspace.

Hollywoods attempts at aviation movies generally range from the ridiculous to the staggeringly horrendous. From a DC9 taking off and changing mid-flight into a 737 on landing after flying the Atlantic in a couple of hours, to the complete removal of safety procedures in films involving ATC.

‘Pushing Tin’ back in 1999 was at least supposed to be a comedy and this made it just about watchable. However, the 2018 film ‘2:22’ was at best the worst ever aviation-themed film and probably did inordinate amounts of damage to anybody with a nervous disposition towards flying.

Taken at Manchester International UK

If you tried to watch this film with any level of common sense let alone aviation knowledge, you probably turned it off at the phrase “Punch it” and are still laughing uncontrollably many months later.

Fortunately, the real world of Air Traffic Control is nothing like what Hollywood would have us believe. Behind the glass, we see in the Visual Control Rooms at the top of the world’s airports ATC towers is generally a quiet and calm group of men and women moving aircraft around the skies and airport ramp providing a first-class service for all.

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