Preventing incidents in a crowded airspace


Cropped shot of two customer service representatives at work in their office

Photo provided with kind permission from NATS

The UK presents one of the busiest air traffic control environments in the world and it’s set to become even more challenging. Air travel numbers are on the rise and that means airspace is getting ever more complex to control while ensuring safety and reducing the environmental impact.

At NATS we are on the front line of air traffic control, managing around 2.5 million aircraft and 200 million passengers flying in skies above the UK. Technology plays a critical role in our operation, but flight delays and cancellations publicly exposed the inadequacy of our IT infrastructure.

Our legacy approach was keeping planes stuck on the ground or in holding patterns meaning passenger delays. We had to put the focus on managing our services, not our infrastructure. We needed a better way. An efficient way.

Towards zero engineering incidents
Importantly, we weren’t just looking a technology replacement, but a strategic solution to underpin our journey to a zero-incident culture. The ServiceNow platform was the clear choice.

While thousands of planes were accumulating airmiles, our team was literally clocking up miles of their own, walking between 170 screens in our control room to monitor the status of all services. It was time consuming, increased the risk of mistakes occurring and made it difficult to diagnose service issues at a platform level. 

We’ve turned that situation on its head with a single platform to bring everything together. We’re making good ground in our pursuit of zero engineering incidents too. With ServiceNow’s ITOM-Operational Intelligence with Machine Learning we are able to detect anomalies across our services and take preventive action before it becomes service impacting. That’s incredibly powerful in our safety-critical world. If an instance happens in one of our applications, ServiceNow will be commanded to remediate and orchestrate it before services are affected or air traffic controllers even know an incident is occurring. 

Capacity is secured, planes aren’t delayed, and the passenger and airline experiences are optimised. 

A bird’s eye view
Using ServiceNow, we will gain a ‘single pane of glass’ view of all services, which will have a tremendously positive impact on the experience of our employees at work. Rather than struggling with numerous systems to review and report on issues, their time shall be freed up to focus on finding solutions to the problems at hand. 

The single view will have another positive effect in terms of new staff onboarding. The time required for new starters to gain Engineering Validation to work in air traffic control has reduced by 50%, from one year to just six months. 

We now also need fewer command line ‘low-level’ engineering skills, with our skillset constantly evolving to further drive provision of safety and informed decision making.

Working in frontline engineering has become much simpler and more empowering with our ServiceNow-powered approach.

A partner with a vision
With aviation and technology both advancing at a rapid pace, we know that despite our progress we will always need to transform and adapt. But I also know that we have the right foundation to continue our journey, because we now manage the entirety of our services on a single scalable platform. In my view, this is the most powerful outcome of our transformation so far. 

Even more importantly, the ServiceNow roadmap matches our strategic priorities with some of the upcoming features that we know will be essential to our future plans. This includes the introduction of advanced operations intelligence, which will further increase our ability to predict incidents and eliminate service outages. 

I sometimes get asked how stressful a job in air traffic control is. Thanks to our skilled engineers and controllers, as well as having the right technology to underpin our mission-critical business, this usually isn’t the case. Through skills development and ongoing digital transformation efforts we are driving excellence for air traffic control engineering.

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