Creaking system in dire need of cash

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The Independent Online

Few would deny that Britain's air traffic control system is in dire need of the £1bn worth of investment, which will be released following yesterday's decision.

Few would deny that Britain's air traffic control system is in dire need of the £1bn worth of investment, which will be released following yesterday's decision.

The present system is being tested to the limit, say controllers. Passenger numbers are rising by about five per cent a year and the aviation industry is expecting a record summer.

But the most controllers opposed the public-private partnership planned for National Air Traffic Services argue that the sought after injection of capital could only be achieved at the expense of safety.

Their union, IMPS, fought during the Nineties for a massive injection of investment so that the system could cope with increasing demand. Tory governments refused to enlarge the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement (PSBR) to rescue the service, but even they balked at the controversy that would have met any plan to privatise the system. Rail was the most controversial sell-off, but the Tories had no appetite to take the pilots and controllers on.

Now, to the amazement of many of its supporters, the Labour Government has pushed ahead with the part-privatisation in the teeth of bitter opposition from trade unionists, many of their own MPs and some ministers.

With the help of the Conservatives, who still harbour the idea that wholesale privatisation was the best solution, the House of Lords succeeded in delaying the sale. And influential Labour backbenchers, together with senior union leaders, conducted a publicity campaign asserting that the Government was about to create "A Railtrack of the Skies".

As a compromise, officials at IPMS proposed the creation of a publicly owned but free-standing non-profit-making trust, which would be able to raise capital on the money markets. The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, resisted the option, which has been chosen by the Canadian government for its own system, on the basis that under present accounting conventions such borrowing would have shown up as part of the PSBR and was therefore not acceptable.

But the sale does have the effect of removing some of the Government's responsibility for the much-delayed and over-budget air traffic control centre at Swanwick, Hampshire. This state-of-the-art complex will take over from the main British control centre at West Drayton near Heathrow. With the help of the new proprietors, it is hoped that new complex will be in operation by next January.

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