British Airways and Lufthansa are planning to use the privatisation of air traffic control to buy their way to the front of take-off and landing queues at Britain's airports.
The two major carriers have privately suggested to John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, that they should be allowed to pay extra for preferential treatment in the skies and at airports. This would lead to smaller airlines, such as BA's arch rivals easyJet and Virgin Atlantic, being forced to put up with greater delays.
The proposal, contained in a confidential government paper on the sell-off, would involve airlines being allowed to take off, climb to cruising altitude, land and disembark ahead of their competitors - in return for a fee.
This "preferential" service would be marketed by those airlines that purchase it as a congestion-beating measure for passengers increasingly fed up with interminable delays and unreliability.
"This service involves paying a premium to ensure that we take off and land at a certain time as scheduled," confirmed a BA spokeswoman. "We would offer fast-track departure and arrival."
The Government, still mired in controversy over the whole National Air Traffic Services (NATS) privatisation, has yet to give a green light to the plan.
But it is certain to be seriously considered as one of the new, additional services that a newly privatised air-traffic control would be in a position to offer. Other airlines have been kept in the dark about the proposals until now.
Ministers are also likely to play cautious for fear of causing further furore over the sale from smaller carriers which would not be able to afford to buy the "preferential" service, and could therefore face even worse delays.
BA and Lufthansa are the airlines most likely to buy the service for routes such as London to New York, which are heavily used by their lucrative business passengers. Both airlines have frequently lashed out at air-traffic managers as uncoordinated, unresponsive and inefficient state monopolies whose poor performance costs them millions every year.
But the idea has already met with fury from the unions and some air-traffic control staff. One industry source said: "The current system of giving take-off slots is impartial; first come first serve always rules. But airlines in future will be able to buy a first-class ticket and controllers will have to focus on getting them up or down first."
Another industry source, who had been told of the plans by senior air-traffic control management that they were in favour of the idea, queried how the scheme would work once a preferential aeroplane left British airspace.
"This confirms all our fears about privatisation, that safety would not be paramount but could be compromised by money-making," he said.
Delegates at a private meeting in Brussels last week attended by pilots, national air- traffic controllers and the umbrella Eurocontrol organisation, warned that they are unlikely to meet targets to reduce last year's record levels.
Last summer the average delay across European flights was 6.6 minutes, this year they are hoping to reduce it to 3.5 minutes - despite an even higher demand for airspace.
But delegates said privately that the targets were too ambitious. "We certainly feel uncomfortable about meeting those targets," said one.