Work experience: David Hilton

These are exciting times for air traffic control. Working Week talks to David Hilton, head of air traffic management operations development for NATS (formerly National Air Traffic Services) at Swanwick.

David Hilton is playing a pivotal role in shaping the future of the air traffic control. A variety of operational and strategic roles during his 35 years in the industry has given him a unique understanding of the immediate and impending challenges ahead. NATS provides air traffic control services to aircraft flying in UK airspace, and over the eastern part of the North Atlantic.

How have you got to where you are today?

I got interested in air traffic control after reading a magazine article when I was leaving school. I started my NATS career the following year in a support role at Aberdeen Airport. I later completed my cadetship at NATS ATC College in Bournemouth and became an air traffic control officer (ATCO) at the Scottish and Oceanic Area Control Centre in Prestwick.

In 1993, after a couple of promotions, I was involved in a project team to revise the upper airspace that included the implementation of flexible sector boundaries as a means of alleviating capacity problems. As much as I loved controlling aircraft, that gave me a taste for the more strategic side of the business.

What have been the most prevalent issues for you and your team in recent times?

The implementation of the two centre strategy will see NATS' operations consolidated from four UK centres to two, at the London Area Control Centre at Swanwick and the Scottish Area Control Centre at Prestwick. This strategy is at the heart of a £1 billion modernisation programme, which was established when NATS became a Public-Private Partnership in 2001, with the controlling interest passing from the UK Government to a consortium of UK airlines.

How are members of your team recruited?

The vast majority of people in my teams either worked as controllers or in ATC or Engineering operational support. Most of my team are recruited internally, and it can be a challenge not only to attract the right talent, but to do so without compromising day to day operational performance. Many of the controllers that make the move out of the operations room wish to keep their validation active. To facilitate this we offer job sharing, or allow controllers to spend a certain amount of hours each month maintaining their currency. This has advantages for both the business and the individual and is, all in all, a very beneficial option.

What does the next 12 months have in store?

We have separate teams looking after the development of today's, tomorrow's and future operations ensuring that we can meet increasing customer demand whilst maintaining and improving safety. One of the most important future developments in which my teams are involved is iFACTS - interim Future Area Control Tools Support.

The functionality provided by this project will have a massive and positive effect on ATC operations in terms of safety, capacity and service delivery. iFACTS amongst other things will introduce computer based medium term conflict detection tools to assist controllers in their complex task. We are also determined to build on the industry leading environmental initiatives we have in place, with several initiatives planned over the next few years.

NATS facts

Team of 150 in operations strategy and investment

Team of 60 in air traffic management operations development

Handled 2.4 million flights in 2006

Employs around 5,000 people in a range of roles


Source: Flight International