Threat to control of UK airspace

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The Independent Online

The skies over Britain could fall under the control of the Germans or French, the head of the country's air traffic control service warned yesterday.

Paul Barron, the new chief executive of National Air Traffic Services (Nats), said the business was facing a real threat from rival air traffic control services because of the move towards a "single European sky".

The stark warning came as Mr Barron unveiled a 21-point plan designed to keep Nats at the forefront of an industry which is expected to be dominated by a handful of big European operators within the next decade. The number of air traffic control services could fall from 40 at present to as few as 10.

"For the first time in a long time there is a threat to the business from the move towards a single European sky," Mr Barron said. "If we don't control that then there is a danger someone will end up controlling us."

The ambitious three-year plan outlined by Mr Barron aims to eliminate entirely aircraft near misses due to air traffic control error and to reduce flight delays attributable to Nats.

The new strategy follows the fiasco in June when hundreds of flights in and out of Heathrow and other UK airports had to be cancelled, disrupting thousands of passengers, after a computer malfunction at Nats' West Drayton centre near London caused by a faulty piece of software.

Mr Barron took over at the part-privatised air traffic control service days afterwards and immediately embarked on a three-month review of the business.

The overhaul is also designed to increase turnover from Nats' unregulated businesses by more than 40 per cent and reduce interest payments on the organisation's £770m of borrowings by improving its credit rating.

Another key target is to lower the charges Nats levies on airlines so that it as cheap as its German and Spanish counterparts by 2007. Nats earned just under £500m from charges to airlines last year and is the fourth most expensive air traffic control service in Europe. But it is also responsible for some of the most congested airspace in Europe, handling 2 million flights a year.

In the year to September, there were two near misses or "airproxes" in UK airspace. In one incident, in May, an RAF Harrier came close to colliding with an executive jet over Swindon. Over the same period, there were 11 "significant safety events" - defined as incidents when air traffic control errors either lead to a loss of separation between aircraft or would have done had the pilots or ground controllers not taken corrective action. Nats' aim is to eliminate any such incidents attributable to it within three years.

Average delay per flight has fallen from 50 seconds in 2003 to 31 seconds in the 10 months to the end of October and the aim is to reduce it further to 25 seconds by 2007.

Nats also wants to limit any future shutdown of the system to less than 60 minutes and eliminate altogether flight delays due to shortages of air traffic controllers.

Mr Barron is also attempting to raise morale and improve management across the organisation. He disclosed that an employee survey carried out last year had painted a "damning" picture of Nats' senior management. Staff complained managers were "not visible" and did not seem to know where Nats was going as a business.

Airline customers Mr Barron had spoken to rated Nats' technical competence very highly but also felt it was "expensive, inflexible and arrogant," he added.