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Parliament & Politics: Air traffic control sell-off should be delayed, say MPs

THE GOVERNMENT'S pounds 1bn plan to privatise air traffic control should be put on hold until a new centre which is set to improve safety and reduce delays is opened, a committee of MPs urged yesterday.

They argued that any decision to opt for a public-private partnership should be deferred until the Swanwick project in Hampshire, the site of the new air traffic control centre for Britain, was up and running because presently there was "little confidence" in the service's accuracy. They found that average air traffic delays had increased from 14 to 17 minutes during the last year.

The date for the completion of the pounds 475m Swanwick centre is uncertain because there have been problems with its software and the opening, originally scheduled for 1996, has slipped back to 2002. Until the Swanwick centre was opened, MPs said, the Government should consider restructuring the National Air Traffic Services within the public sector.

The report by the Environment, Transport and the Regions Select Committee coincided with advice by the Civil Aviation Authority that a "safe and efficient" air traffic service could be under threat if the NATS were split up. Sir Malcolm Field, the CAA chairman, said in a letter that a break-up of the present system would result in higher costs to customers and "even increase flight delays". Privatisation of air traffic services has been controversial since before the last general election. It was opposed by Labour under the Tories but the leadership swung behind it during the campaign. Dr John Reid, the Transport minister, said in his evidence to the committee that he was in favour of the public-private partnership if the time for a sell-off was right so that the tax- payer would get best value for money.

He suggested that legislation to implement the privatisation could be passed before the next general election, but only enacted "at the appropriate time". MPs also urged regular checks on the health and morale of air traffic controllers amid a safety threat because of their increasing workload.

The Government launched a crackdown on airport security breaches across Britain yesterday amid recent allegations that a contract cleaning firm at Heathrow gave out a temporary access pass without checking the employee's references.

Dr John Reid, the Transport minister, said "only one breach" of security could cost lives and ordered that all security passes from Skyliner's temporary staff be withdrawn pending an inquiry.