The case for air traffic management improvements is being made, but so is the case for a sea change in actions and attitudes

While being fearful of the way the non-specialist press may react to the data it has gathered on level busts in UK airspace, National Air Traffic Services (NATS) has decided to publish and be damned. This is wise, because NATS would be operating with one hand tied behind its back in trying to deal with the causes and, thus, the problem itself unless it could be completely up-front with airlines, the military, and all pilots and controllers.

Level busts - incidents in which aircraft climb or descend through their air traffic control-cleared height - are a universal problem, but the only serious data gathering and analysis of the subject was begun by NATS in 1990. Now Eurocontrol has enthusiastically entered the ring to spread the message more widely.

As it started on its data-gathering effort, NATS also began a programme to raise awareness among pilots. But at first it did not have the data to back up its claims that the issue had to be taken seriously. Now NATS has the power of facts behind it to persuade any sceptics that the problem exists and - more promisingly - that the industry has the ability to do something about it. Indeed the first figures from 2003 indicate that NATS' level-busts roadshow - which it started in November 2002 - has had a significant effect on reducing events in the UK's most complex airspace sector. This presentation, including a dramatic re-enactment of control room scenes during reconstructions of selected real events, has had the power to make groups of pilots and controllers "go very quiet", NATS reports, even though they know from personal experience that most level busts are resolved without any loss of separation between aircraft.

Despite all the technology now available to pilots and controllers, level busts are mostly caused by small human errors or omissions - usually breaking the routine of familiar standard operating procedures without realising they have done it. Technology to reduce many risks, including level busts, is in the pipeline, but though it may reduce risks significantly it will not eliminate them completely. This is why safety net systems like the airborne collision avoidance systems (ACAS) will still be needed for the foreseeable future.

NATS' level bust campaign is one small example of the air traffic management (ATM) industry's reaction not just to existing but to future challenges. "Future" is too vague. "Imminent" is more accurate. Something must be done if it is to provide - safely - for the growing demand for air travel and the increase in traffic that implies. For this reason Eurocontrol is launching a broad offensive to raise pan-European ATM safety standards at a high- level one-day seminar in Brussels on 17 February. The challenge is openly aimed at the leaders of Europe's air traffic service (ATS) providers - the real movers and shakers - so it is going to be revealing to see who takes it seriously and who does not.

After the shock of "the accident that could not happen" - the July 2002 collision over southern Germany between two ACAS-equipped airliners in relatively quiet airspace - Eurocontrol hit the accelerator in its programme for ATM safety. It appointed a high- level committee, the Action Group for Aviation Safety (AGAS) to pinpoint the priorities for action in the short, medium-term and long-term, and the methodology by which identified problems might be solved. AGAS has reported, and the emphasis is on action, even though Eurocontrol recognises openly that some of the more complex programmes - usually equipping to common standards or changing national operating practices to a European norm - are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. So are some of the political and industrial implications of the moves toward the Single European Sky (SES) objective. ATS providers should make no mistake, however - the SES is not just about efficiency and capacity improvement, it is about safety. The very complexity of Europe's existing patchwork quilt of ATM systems is a risk-creator in its own right.

One of the objectives Eurocontrol always espoused but which AGAS has identified as essential is the gathering and exchange of safety data. It needs this to ensure safety efforts and resources are directed accurately and to best effect. NATS' level-bust programme is the perfect case in point. It has now got some teeth, but until it had the data NATS could not quantify the problem or even fully understand its causes.

The safety message to Europe's ATS providers is not just the familiar exhortation "something must be done", but the more positive "something can be done". And of course if it can be done, it must be.

Source: Flight International