The basic service FISOs (Flight Information Service Officers) give to aircraft operating outside of controlled airspace from two control centres – Swanwick and Prestwick.
A “basic service” is a flight information service, which is provided for the purpose of giving advice and useful information for the safe and efficient conduct of flights. This includes information such as weather information, changes of serviceability of facilities, conditions at aerodromes, and general airspace activity information as well as any other information likely to affect safety.
At the Prestwick Centre, FISOs provide a basic service between 08:00 to 20:00, local time, up to FL55 (roughly up to altitude 5,500ft). Outside these times and levels the service is provided by air traffic controllers on other sectors.
The FISO licence does not cover radar-based surveillance or the issue of executive commands to aircraft; in other words they don’t monitor aircraft using radar or tell them what to do. They rely on the information pilots give to help form the traffic ‘picture’ and refer to a 1:500k VFR (Visual Flight Rules) chart, which gives us an idea of where their reported route will take them. Avoiding other air traffic is solely the pilot’s responsibility; however generic air traffic information may be provided by the FISO, dependent on workload.
Officially, air traffic operating outside controlled airspace does not have to speak to anybody at all. This allows great freedom for pilots, especially over the vast and beautiful terrain of Scotland, but this is not always the safest option. The most important function of the FISO is to provide an alerting service, so should anything go wrong they can quickly notify search and rescue, as well as other relevant agencies, so we can all assist the aircraft should they be in a situation of urgency or distress. It is far easier to provide assistance if the pilot has already called in on the frequency and given the key flight details than if they are unaware of them and their plans.