If anyone needs a peaceful Christmas, it is Richard Deakin: the boss of Nats, Britain's air traffic control service, had a nightmare start to the festive season two weeks ago when a computer glitch at Nats' pounds 623m Swanwick base in Hampshire delayed hundreds of flights.
With millions of people arriving in Britain and leaving it over the Christmas and new year period, Nats needs things to run smoothly. Flights peaked at about 5,800 on Friday and Heathrow expects 1.5 million passengers to take off and land at the UK's busiest airport from Christmas Eve to New Year's Day.
Deakin offers no guarantee against further Nats-induced delays but says the software problem that caused chaos on 7 December will not recur.
He says: "That last event was a one-in-10-year event, and that particular system is fixed. That system isn't going to fall over. As you can imagine, it's had a bit of attention. We're not proud of the disruption we caused people. Everyone at Nats was working flat out from the small hours of the morning to minimise the impact . . . My phone went off extremely early in the morning, and I spent most of the day on the phone at Swanwick talking to the Department for Transport and the airlines."
The disruption preceded the biggest event of the year for the British aviation industry: last week's publication of the Davies commission's interim proposals for expanding UK airport capacity.
Deakin says the two subjects are linked because Britain's airspace is operating at maximum capacity. That means any disruption has knock-on effects because there is no slack in the system to reschedule flights, unlike at Paris'sCharles De Gaulle airport and Amsterdam's Schiphol, which run at about 70% of full capacity.
"We need to plan for capacity, resilience and growth. We need to add resilient capacity instead of continuing to run at 100%," Deakin says.
In his interim report, Sir Howard Davies proposed three firm options for increasing airport space in the south-east: adding a third runway at Heathrow, lengthening an existing Heathrow runway, and a new runway at Gatwick. He said he would consider the proposal from the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, for a giant new airport in north Kent, although approval for that is believed to be very unlikely.
Deakin's concerns over the so-called Boris Island have contributed to the burying of the project. Although Nats is not at the forefront of the capacity debate, its advice is vital because those extra flights need to be placed somewhere over England's crowded skies. Deakin has argued before that the Boris Island airport is the worst option because it will create snarl-ups with planes bound for Schiphol and other London airports. Nonetheless, Deakin says anything is possible technically: "We can add a hub or extra capacity anywhere."
He has also thrown down the gauntlet to airlines and Nats' regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, over this month's disruption. If airlines want to prevent one-off system glitches, they will have to help fund the cost of installing extra safeguards and the CAA will need to make a judgment on how much is enough, he says.
"Our back-up system delivered 90% capacity, so the longer-term question is: if 90% wasn't enough, what is? And how will that be funded?"
Nats was established in 1962 as National Air Traffic Control Services to control Britain's civil flights. It has been one of the state's more successful privatisations, barring the odd system failure such as this month's stumble. The government partly privatised the company in 2000, selling 46% to a group of
airlines, giving staff a 5% stake and keeping 49%. Heathrow now owns a 4% piece of the airlines' original stake.
Nats handles 2.1m flights and 220 million passengers in UK airspace each year. Last year, the average delay was 1.4 seconds - 4% of the European average and down from 130 seconds 10 years ago.
Nats will have a new shareholder when the Universities Superannuation Scheme's purchase of half of the Airline Group shareholding completes, early next year. The deal will give the fund a 21% indirect stake in Nats, and Deakin says it is keen for the company to grow.
Last year the company made a pre-tax profit of pounds 190.7m and international operations make up a growing share of Nats' activities. In 2000, Nats' only operation outside the UK was in Gibraltar but now it sells air traffic control technology and advice in more than 30 countries.
The Middle East and Asia are top of Deakin's target markets list. His latest deal is working with Rolls-Royce and Qatar Airways to increase the airline's efficiency when flying Airbuses in and out of Doha, saving fuel and money.
"It's something we proposed to Qatar Airways," he says. "The worst contract you can do is where you compete against the world. One of the key challenges is putting bodies on the ground.
"We're increasingly putting offices into the Middle East, India, Singapore, Hong Kong and other markets to build relationships. We try to avoid just responding to requests for information.
"Asia-Pacific is a huge growth area. It feels as though things haven't slowed down there, even during the recession. Every month in China, 240 new civil aircraft are registered. Can you believe that?"
The new year should bring big opportunities for Deakin. But for now, there remains the small matter of getting a few million people off the tarmac and to their destinations without any further technical failures.
Richard Deakin says the airlines will have to help fund extra safeguards if they want to prevent future failures
Passengers at Heathrow'sTerminal 5 queue to check in and rebook after a glitch at the Nats centre caused UK-wide delays on 7 December Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA