Air traffic control for commercial flights in the UK started in 1920. Croydon was first used as London’s air terminal, but all the controller could do was give the pilot a red or green light for take-off and acknowledge position reports sent by radio.
After the war, ATC became the responsibility of the Ministry of Civil Aviation, and the network of air routes we use today began to develop in the 1950s.
Our forerunner, National Air Traffic Control Services (NATCS), was established in December 1962. It covered civil ATC but liaised with the MoD (RAF) in areas where military traffic needed to cross civilian routes. When the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) was established in April 1972, NATCS became part of it and shortened its name to NATS.
In 1992 it was recognised that as a service provider NATS should be operated at a distance from its regulator, the CAA. With that in mind, NATS was re-organised into a Companies Act company in April 1996 and became a wholly owned subsidiary of the CAA.
The Public-Private Partnership for NATS was proposed in June 1998, and enshrined in the Transport Act 2000. The Government chose the Airline Group as the preferred partner in March 2001 and the transaction was completed in July 2001 with the sale of 46% to the AG and the devise of 5% to staff. Although the Government retained the balance, the company was finally free of Treasury control.
The aviation industry downturn after 11 September 2001 led to a financial restructuring of NATS. This involved £130 million of additional investment (split between Government and Heathrow Airport Holdings Limited) to reduce borrowings. At the same time, Heathrow Airport Holdings Limited took a 4% shareholding, reducing the Airline Group’s holding to 42%. A £600 million bond issue, successfully completed in October 2003, further reduced our debt.
In 2003, NATS launched its ten-year £1 billion investment programme with the announcement of a complete renewal of its radar network. Since then, we have worked with Nav Canada on a new system for Oceanic control; became the first in Europe to establish a working Functional Airspace Block (FAB) with Irish counterparts; and launched a Joint Venture company with the Spanish to develop the next generation of air traffic management systems for Europe.
February: HRH The Princess Royal officially opens Prestwick Centre.
August: New virtual control facility for Heathrow is launched.
June: NATS Services secures Manchester Airport ATC contract until 2015.
October: NATS Services win a MoD contract to redesign flight procedures at 54 MoD aerodromes.
June: Four years of work by NATS and the IAA culminates in the announcement of the first functional airspace block (FAB).
November: Terminal Control transitioned from West Drayton to Swanwick after 40 years.
October: NAS (National Airspace System) transferred successfully to Swanwick after over 30 years at West Drayton.
February: NATS and the MoD sign a landmark contract worth £724.6 million to provide air traffic control systems for the next 15 years, enabling full integration between civil and military en-route air traffic control.
March: NATS rebrands to demonstrate coming of age as commercial, customer-focused service provider.
August: NATS wins first overseas contract with a three-year agreement to provide air traffic control services for RAF Gibraltar.
October: NATS wins multi-million pound 20-year contract to provide Bristol International Airport’s air traffic control service.
November: NATS and Irish Aviation Authority commission study into functional airspace block as key step in Single European Sky development.
December: Stansted becomes first UK airport to use Electronic Flight Data Processing Strips.
January: New Farnborough tower becomes operational.
April: First phase of £1 billion investment plan kicks off with start of ten-year, £127 million programme to replace secondary radar equipment at 20 UK sites.
First flight handled from new Swanwick Centre.
Airline Group takes control of NATS as PPP becomes effective.
NATS instrumental in the design and implementation of Version 7 of Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) software.
Single European Sky initiative launched.
Labour Government announces plans to establish Public Private Partnership for NATS.
Airports engineering provides an Instrument Landing System (ILS) to its first external client at Farnborough (TAG Aviation).
NATS manages its first control tower project to design, construct and equip the new tower at Stansted.
NATS is the first Air Navigation Service Provider in the world to develop and adopt formal safety management system.
Scottish operation moves from Redbrae House to Atlantic House.
NATS achieves full cost recovery in areas under direct control, making it largely self-financing.
Civil Aviation Authority comes into being, incorporating NATS’ civil staff; the role of Controller NATS rotates between civil and military personnel.
London Air Traffic Control Centre opens at West Drayton.
National Air Traffic Control Services formed – the first incarnation of NATS.
Hurn School of ATC is formed.
First commercial flight leaves newly-opened Heathrow airport for Buenos Aires.
Croydon opens as London’s main air terminal. A rudimentary form of air traffic control involving flags is put into operation.
Updated today at 21:00