Air Traffic Control: Partial sell-off will delay passengers, say air officials

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AIR TRAVELLERS face mounting disruption if the government presses ahead with the part-privatisation of air traffic control, executives with the service said yesterday.

Bill Semple, chief executive of National Air Traffic Services (Nats), said the system needs pounds 1bn in investment over the next 10 years to cope with a doubling of air traffic. He does not believe the Treasury will be prepared to pump that kind of money into the purchase of a sophisticated computer system to cope with the increase in air travel.

"We would never let the traffic situation get out of hand," he told the Commons select committee on transport. "If we can't meet traffic demands, delays will escalate exponentially because we will not let the system become unsafe."

Sir Roy McNulty, the organisation's chairman, warned of "intolerable levels" of delay unless the money is invested. Citing the experience of state-owned companies such as Shorts in Belfast, he said: "Government is the worse investor I know."

Mr Semple warned controllers that computers will take over their jobs whether the company remained in the public sector or not. Sophisticated technology is needed to regulate air space and human beings are incapable of handling the amount of traffic predicted.

That could happen in 10 years or less but if Nats was in private hands it would be difficult to redeploy them to other ventures.

The committee heard that air-traffic-control instructors who sent a letter to The Independent, protesting about the public-private partnership envisaged for the organisation, have been warned not to contact the media again. Mr Semple said the staff were not disciplined but they were reminded that the company rules do not allow such action.

Sir Roy told MPs that the Government's plan would give the organisation the opportunity to exploit new markets and benefit from private sector management skills.

And he insisted there is no question of part-privatisation endangering safety. Responsibility for regulating such matters would be taken from Nats and held in the state sector. "If anything, the plan will enhance safety," he told MPs. "The first thing that a strategic partner will want to ensure is that safety is at least the same standard as it is today," Sir Roy said.

As the committee sat, the Commons debated the Transport Bill which paves the way for the sale. The Government's "preferred option" is to sell 46 per cent of the equity to private investors with up to 5 per cent set aside for employees. The state would retain 49 per cent.

Asked whether other air traffic services are in private hands, Mr Semple said the Fijian organisation is run by an Australian company and the Canadian system is no longer owned by the government.