Heseltine to sell off air traffic control

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THE Government is set to press ahead with privatising air traffic control services despite widespread fears about the safety implications.

On Monday, Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, will announce plans to sell off the National Air Traffic Service, currently part of the Civil Aviation Authority.

A team of civil servants has been examining the potential for privatising the service since late last year but had come up against what seemed like insuperable difficulties. These included the fact that Eurocontrol, the European umbrella body, does not allow national air traffic services to make excessive profits, worries about how to separate out military work, and concern about the impossibility of introducing competition.

Mr Heseltine has apparently waved aside these objections and will produce a White Paper on Monday with a view to legislation being introduced in the Queen's Speech in the autumn. He is anxious to press ahead because the current NATS investment programme - pounds 750m over the next 10 years - counts against the public sector borrowing requirement, even though the organisation is self-financing from the income it receives for its services.

Joe Magee, of the IPMS union, which represents 1,600 air traffic controllers, said the only potential customers for buying NATS would be the airlines or the equipment manufacturers. 'Either way there are problems about competition,' he said.

'We are desperately worried that privatisation will lead to cutting corners on safety.'

Labour's transport spokesman, Brian Wilson, said yesterday: 'There are some areas of activity to which the profit motive simply should not apply and air-traffic control is one of them.'