Fresh delay adds to air traffic woe

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THE GOVERNMENT body behind plans for a new pounds 350m air traffic control centre will admit this week that the opening of the scheme has been delayed by another year, putting the project four years behind schedule.

A series of failures has already forced senior managers to admit that the centre, originally due to open in 1996, now faces a struggle to open by the winter of 1999. The fresh delay would put the opening date back to 2000.

The Civil Aviation Authority could announce the latest setback on Thursday, the day after the Transport Minister John Reid faces tough questioning from a powerful committee of MPs over the problems with the software that have caused the delays. The announcement will be a blow to ministers' controversial plans for a pounds 1bn partial privatisation of the country's air traffic control system.

The Government wants private investors, including air traffic employees, to take 51 per cent of shares in National Air Traffic Services (Nats), currently owned by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), and to keep the remaining 49 per cent.

The plan for the centre at Swanwick, Hampshire, is central to the future of Nats, as it would relieve the pressure on air traffic controllers who are facing an increasing workload.

Dr Reid will give evidence to the Commons Transport Select Committee tomorrow while senior managers from the CAA and Nats have been asked to appear before the committee next week. The committee is concerned over the delays to the project, which is intended to replace the centre at West Drayton, west London, where staff supervise more than four million aircraft movements a year.

Government sources indicated the plan, which has been criticised by unions representing Nats staff, was unlikely to get a space in the legislation timetable before 2000. This week's announcement is likely to delay legislation further and comes against a background of speculation that the plan may be abandoned. The private sector will be wary of investing in the business before the issue has been resolved.

Both the CAA and the Department of Transport declined to comment yesterday.

The Government will today issue a consultation document seeking comments on its plan for part-privatisation.

Meanwhile, CAA figures yesterday highlighted the rise in the number of planes using Britain's crowded airspace. The number of planes landing and taking off at major airports is running at record levels while flight delays are increasing.