Air traffic controllers threaten Easter walk-out over privatisation

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The Independent Online

Easter holiday flights from British airports face severe disruption. Air traffic controllers are threatening to take industrial action over privatisation and management plans that "undermine safety".

Easter holiday flights from British airports face severe disruption. Air traffic controllers are threatening to take industrial action over privatisation and management plans that "undermine safety".

Dozens of motions warning of walk-outs have been tabled for the annual conference of the normally moderate air traffic controllers' section of the IPMS union. Apart from anger over government plans to sell off 51 per cent of National Air Traffic Services (Nats), controllers are concerned at the introduction of performance-related pay for operational staff and arrangements to train personnel for the new £623m control centre at Swanwick, Hampshire.

Staff representatives argue that the introduction of performance pay would encourage controllers to cut corners. They also contend that management plans to train staff during the summer for operations at Swanwick, belatedly due to open next January, could lead to staff being overworked. Some 98 per cent of controllers voted to reject a management offer to pay them £8,000 to give up 10 days' holiday to be trained on the new system. They believe that at a time of staff shortage, they are already working to the limit and that time off is essential. Industrial action could start at Easter and postpone the opening of the Swanwick complex.

Iain Findlay, national official at IPMS, said the union was worried that management was unnecessarily provoking a mood in which industrial action was likely. He said: "Morale is already low and they are doing things which are simply getting up controllers' noses."

Controllers say the partprivatisation, due to be completed in April, could put profits ahead of safety. Union members are understood to be particularly concerned about one of three bids to buy into the service. Serco, which already runs air control at Biggin Hill, Sheffield and Shetland, has suggested staff cutbacks and a new industrial relations system, union representatives say. But a spokesman for the group insisted: "Nothing would be done which would undermine safety. We would not do that and we would not be allowed to do it."

The union is opposed to the whole public-private partnership plan, but is least hostile towards the Airlines Group, which has tabled proposals that would give low priority to profit-making. Among the eight airlines involved in the group are British Airways and Virgin.

A bid led by Lockheed Martin is understood to stand the least chance of succeeding.

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