Air safety to be sold off

Announcement on partial sale of air traffic control set for Tuesday
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The Independent Online
RILED BY accusations that it lacked the political nerve to sell off the National Air Traffic Control Service (NATS), the Government is now expected to announce plans on Tuesday to partly privatise the organisation responsible for air safety.

The move is certain to provoke a furious reaction from backbench Labour MPs, the Lib Dems, and unions

"The union is due to meet [Deputy Prime Minister John] Prescott and [Transport Minister Helen] Liddell on Tuesday morning," said one insider.

"We expect a statement in the House of Commons on Tuesday afternoon," he said.

Opponents of the NATS sell-off, who argue the Government is risking air safety to demonstrate a pro-market attitude to the global business community, lined up last week to slate the expected announcement.

"We fear the worst - a government announcement on the last day of Parliament before ministers scuttle away on their holidays, leaving air traffic controllers behind fuming as they handle the highest-ever level of traffic," said Charles Harvey, an executive at the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists, the union for air controllers.

The expectation is that the Government will declare its intention to sell 51 per cent of the NATS to a private company, while offering a further 6 per cent of the operation's equity to NATS employees.

A spokesman for the NATS confirmed that a half dozen companies had declared an interest in buying a controlling stake in the air traffic control system. Sir Roy McNulty, the NATS chairman, has consistently argued that partial privatisation would help the service to raise the pounds 1bn it needs over the next 10 years.

The Treasury is understood to like the idea of realising between pounds 300m and pounds 500m through a sale, while at the same time getting the capital investment requirements of the NATS off its books.

Companies that have declared an interest in the NATS include the National Grid, Thomson-CSF and Serco Group, a Southall-based facilities management company.

Martin Salter, a Labour backbencher, declared: "It would be regarded as extremely contemptuous to the traditions of Parliament if ministers had already lined up a buyer for a public asset before even an announcement had been made in the House of Commons."

He declined to comment on meetings between backbench MPs and ministers but said he was very worried that a sell-off would compromise safety.