Air-traffic system is pounds 87m over budget

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THE GOVERNMENT'S spending watchdog may be called in to investigate the troubled new air- traffic control centre after claims that the cost of its computer system had risen by 75 per cent - or pounds 87m - in six years.

National Air Traffic Services (Nats), which owns the planned centre at Swanwick, Hampshire, yesterday confirmed it paid a US aerospace firm pounds 216.9m for the system. A consortium led by Lockheed Martin, which delivered the completed system in April,signed a pounds 130m fixed-price contract in 1992, according to Computer Weekly magazine. Yesterday, Gwyneth Dunwoody, chairman of the Commons Transport sub-Committee, said she would investigate the matter when it takes evidence from Nats next month.

She said she might refer the whole Swanwick issue to the Public Accounts Committee, the spending watchdog, after she had investigated the figures. "There are some very straight questions that we have been asking and we want to receive straight answers. The committee will have a lot of questions about costs, about implications and about the efficiency of the contractors."

The sub-committee takes evidence from the Civil Aviation Authority and Nats on 28 October. The pounds 216.9m figure is also pounds 54m more than the pounds 163m costs reported by the Commons Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee in March.

The Nats report for 1997-98 shows it paid Lockheed Martin pounds 216.9m, almost half the total budget of pounds 475m. The Civil Aviation Authority, the Nats parent body, said claims that Lockheed had been paid an extra pounds 87m were "grossly misleading".

A spokesman said the pounds 216.9m was the combined capital and revenue costs. The original contract had contained options for unexpected changes. "The project was approved by the Government on the basis that the capital cost should not exceed pounds 350m. As might be expected, there have been a number of changes to the contract since 1992.

"The cost of these changes have been contained within the limit approved by the Government."

The news of rising costs is the latest blow to the Swanwick centre. A number of failures forced managers to admit the centre, originally scheduled to open in 1996, faces a struggle to open by winter next year. Staff supervise 4 million aircraft movements from premises at West Drayton, west London.

In June, the Government said it planned partly to privatise Nats, involving private investors, including air-traffic employees, taking a 51 per cent stake in the service, with the Government holding the rest. In the same month, ministers said they would investigate the computer software problems.

The investigation would also look at the pressure that controllers are under at West Drayton. Some controllers have complained that the airspace is so crowded it is becoming difficult to maintain a safe separation between aircraft.