Flight delays likely in air traffic switch

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Operations finally began at Britain's much-delayed £623m air traffic control centre at Swanwick in Hampshire yesterday, in a changeover that was hailed as a "remarkable technical achievement".

The centre, which was originally due to open in 1996, went operational at 12.53am when Sarah Harris, 29, safely guided Airtours international flight AIH 550 from Las Palmas to Birmingham into UK airspace.

But passengers are likely to experience flight delays for a few days because of the opening and a reorganisation of airspace in Europe.

Richard Everitt, the chief executive of National Air Traffic Services (Nats), said: "Swanwick's entry into service represents a remarkable technical achievement. Britain can now boast the most technically advanced air traffic control centre in the world."

He said the successful switch of operations from West Drayton, near Heathrow airport, was one of the "largest and most complex logistical transitions in air traffic history".

Mr Everitt added: "Swanwick gives us the technological advances and operational headroom we need to handle safely a further million flights a year by 2011, in addition to the two million we handle today. We also plan to shorten flight delays from one and a half minutes per flight to a new average of one minute or less. The project is capable of providing world-class air traffic control services for the next 30 years."

The repeated delays to the opening of Swanwick have been due to computer software problems. They meant that the cost of the centre rose by nearly £150m on top of the original figure of £475m.

Nats has advised airlines that temporary restrictions on the volume of flights may be imposed over the coming weeks as controllers become familiar with the layout of the new centre. The transfer of operations was planned to take place at a quiet time of the year.

The Swanwick opening follows the part-privatisation of Nats last year, with 46 per cent of the company being taken over by an airline consortium that includes British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.

The downturn in air traffic since 11 September has severely hit Nats, which has already announced staff cuts.