Congested skies will mean more flight delays

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The Independent Online
Those travelling by air next summer are likely to face lengthy flight delays as Britain's

skies become ever more congested.

With air passenger numbers set to grow by 6 per cent a year until 2000, and no sign of new equipment to deal with the extra flights, more holidaymakers are likely to spend time loitering at the boarding gate.

"Assuming traffic growth remains high, a rise in the level of delays is possible next year," said Keith Williams, director of safety and operations at National Air Traffic Services (Nats). Mr Williams added: "Delays due to air traffic control will probably not lengthen next year ... but more aircraft could be delayed."

About 9 per cent of UK flights were delayed by air traffic capacity limitations in summer 1997. The flights held up were, on average, delayed for 15 minutes.

The matter is made worse as the new centre at Swanwick, designed to relieve the pressure on controllers and planned to start operations in 1996, will not now open until the end of 1999.

Instead, the forecast 20 per cent increase in UK commercial aircraft movements will have to be handled by juggling the resources of the current system. MPs have questioned why a contract to build the new pounds 200m Scottish air traffic control centre has been handed to a consortium headed by the same company - Lockheed Martin - which has failed to deliver the Swanwick operation.

Mr Williams said a record number of aircraft had been handled by UK controllers this year. He added the London centre at West Drayton handled 1.5 million take-offs and landings last year.

"Delays are creeping up but we should stress that of all the reasons that flights are delayed in Europe, only 19 per cent are for air traffic control reasons."

Compounded by problems caused by both the airlines and passengers, some delays can be lengthy. Last summer, British Airways flights from Gatwick to Athens suffered average delays of 49 minutes. Meanwhile at Heathrow, trips on Virgin Atlantic to New York left on average more than 40 minutes late.

Nats announced yesterday that despite the rise in air traffic, the number of near-miss incidents had not increased in the past year.

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