After Eyjafjallajökull – time to end NATS secrecy

I had always assumed that NATS – the UK’s air traffic control organisation, which was at the heart of the volcanic ash crisis – would be covered by Freedom of Information legislation.

After all:

The company… holds a monopoly of air traffic control for aircraft flying over the United Kingdom and, with its Irish counterpart, the North East Atlantic. It also provides air traffic control at most of the large airports around the country.

NATS was once a public body, but was converted into a public-private partnership in July 2001. The government maintains a 49% shareholding, with 46% held by a consortium of airlines, and 5% by employees.

It still provides a quintessentially public service, however, but because it’s not 100% government-owned, it’s not covered by the 2000 FOI Act (nor are any other public-private partnerships).

The public has a right to see information held by the British Potato Council, the Horserace Betting Levy Board, or the Architects Registration Board – but none at all to understand how NATS handles flights on which 200 million passengers travel every year.

The Act, however, gives the relevant Secretary of State the power to “designate as a public authority for the purposes of this Act any person…who appears to the Secretary of State to exercise functions of a public nature.”

Surely that clause should be used to bring all or most of NATS’s work under the act, especially as we try to understand the organization’s highly controversial role in the Eyjafjallajökull crisis.

Wonder if the new government will commit to making this change as soon as it takes office…

Eyjafjallajökull: all a con, or not. Who knows?

It is often in the aftermath of a crisis that the government definitively loses control of the agenda – it moves on, while the media cements its narrative on who was to blame, and why.

So it is with the ash cloud. We are told that the Met Office plane that should have been up in the air monitoring the ash cloud was undergoing a refit. As a result, many journalists are now convinced the whole crisis was a con. “Remember that ash cloud?” asks the Daily Mail. “It doesn’t exist, says new evidence.”

Jim McKenna, the Civil Aviation Authority’s head of airworthiness, strategy and policy (great combo), appears to admit the decision to close British airspace was a cock up:

It’s obvious that at the start of this crisis, there was a lack of definitive data. It’s also true that for some of the time, the density of ash above the UK was close to undetectable.

Head to the CAA website, however, and you won’t find anything on these claims. The most recent item on the ash cloud is a highly-defensive op-ed from its chairman [sic], Dame Deirdre Hutton, written three days ago. There’s nothing at all from Jim McKenna – either to explain what went wrong, or to place his quote in a broader context.

NATS stopped updates on the volcano on Friday, while the Met Office’s website is a car crash, and its latest update typifies the jargon-heavy style that the UK’s weathermen and women have made their own. Here’s a defence of the Met’s predictions in the nearest the Met comes to using plain English (more detail here):

We use multiple dispersion models endorsed by the international meteorological community. The output from the Met Office volcanic ash dispersion model has been compared with our neighbouring VAACs in Canada and France since the beginning of this incident and the results are consistent.

The results from our model have been verified by observations of volcanic ash from a variety of sources, including from instruments carried by Met Office, FAAM and NERC research aircraft, balloon and land based LIDARS.

So did the cloud exist? Was Jim McKenna the source of newspaper claims that “the maximum density of the cloud was only five per cent of the safe flying limit”? Who knows? And there seems to be little chance of the UK’s public sector telling you.

Update: Just because it’s wonderful, have a butchers at this superb video of Europe’s airports coming back to life.