Managing change to meet market challenges
A NATS case study

Below is a list of Business Case Studies case studies organised alphabetically by company. To view more companies, please choose a letter from the list below.

Page 4: Deploying SESAR and Change in NATS

Nats 20 Image 5As discussed, deploying SESAR (the Single European Sky ATM Research programme) concepts, which introduces new methods of managing air traffic, is a critical part of the Single European Sky initiative.  The UK government are obliged to adopt many SESAR concepts by law.

A core element of SESAR is about moving to what we term ‘trajectory-based operations’. The current method of Air Traffic Control is to fly along pre-defined airways.  These airways have been defined by historic navigation aid locations, with airlines filing flight plans to indicate where they want to fly, referencing these navigation aids.  Whilst airborne and following their proposed flight plan, an Air Traffic Controller then uses tactical interventions as appropriate to ensure that two aircraft don’t end up in the same place at the same time.  Whilst this helps us to ensure safety, it doesn’t always enable us to deliver all the fuel and environmental benefits our customers want to see.

Introducing the SESAR concept of trajectory-based operations will help to change this.  The concept of trajectory-based operations is best explained by imagining a tunnel in the sky from departure all the way to the destination. By increasing the data we receive from aircraft and developing new systems and tools that enable us to process and understand that data, we will be able to create a much more accurate and dynamic picture of an aircraft’s journey from departure point to destination.

This will enable us to work out where each aircraft is going to be at what time and then to de-conflict aircraft trajectories before they take off. It will also enable us to work out the most efficient route available, helping to provide those fuel and environmental savings that our customers are seeking.  As well as helping us with the en-route or ‘cruising’ phase of flight, it will also help us to implement new concepts for managing traffic in and around airports, helping us to reduce the use of ‘holding stacks’, which are used to hold aircraft just outside an airport until a slot is available for it to land, and enabling us to reduce the noise impact on local communities.

The benefits to NATS and its customers are significant.  However, the challenge is not as simple as it sounds.  Over the next five years NATS will invest approximately £600m in transforming its technological infrastructure to enable the requirements of SESAR. To support this transition NATS has formed a number of strategic partnerships with key market players to support the technological transformation.

In addition to the technology changes, NATS will need to ensure that its employees are ready to take on new ways of working.  These changes are very significant and will impact almost all employees in NATS, whether it is changing what they do on a day to day basis or developing new skills to ensure that the organisation can meet its future challenges and expectations, whilst ensuring that the day to day service currently offered remains safe and resilient.

The people dimension is as critical as the technological change impacting the organisation.  Ensuring that all employees are equipped, aligned and committed to delivering the necessary changes is a core element of the broader NATS approach to transforming the organisation.  Having highly capable leadership and a workforce that is flexible is core to this challenge.  

However, the challenge of change is compounded by the make-up of the NATS workforce, with a significant percentage of our existing Air Traffic Controllers and Engineers due to reach retirement age during the period of the Deploying SESAR programme of activity up to 2024.  Ensuring that all 4200 employees are engaged in the change, that they understand very clearly what needs to be different and how it needs to be different and ensuring that they are equipped to manage the differences between today and tomorrow, are all vitally important as NATS moves from today’s model of air traffic management to our new ways of working.  The workforce demographic represents both a challenge and an opportunity to ensure that core knowledge and skills are retained whilst new knowledge and skills are developed. NATS and its unions are working together to ensure the employee dimension poses no undue risks to the overall change or today-to-day service provision.Nats 20 Image 1

It is understood within the organisation that NATS is about to embark on the most significant transformation in its history. As such, senior leadership in NATS have concluded that an integrated approach to managing change is required, that the changes the organisation is facing cannot just be the sum of its parts, but that this transformation needs to be cohesive, dynamic and iterative and carried out within a clear structure of:


  • Planning - knowing where the organisation is going over defined periods of time supported by clear systematic programme management and governance;
  • Implementation – ensuring active engagement of all affected employees to ensure participation, with the outcome of having a motivated workforce supported with the necessary training and development to make the transition successful;
  • Control  - proactively managing the critical path of change, de-conflicting where necessary and ensuring the right levels of governance and control; and
  • Review - ensuring that progress is being measured and monitored, any lessons that are identified are being enshrined in doing things differently next time and that the overall objectives of the change are delivering precisely what is expected.

NATS | Managing change to meet market challenges