Skies are full, struggling flight controllers warn

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The Independent Online

Britain's Air Traffic Controllers warned yesterday that they were being forced to deal with more flights than they could physically handle.

This summer has seen a steep rise in overseas holiday bookings, which has resulted in air traffic controllers struggling to cope with a vast increase in the number of flights.

During the next year, more than 200 million passengers will pass through airports in the United Kingdom, compared with just under 130 million in 1995. If the enthusiasm for air travel continues to grow at its current rate, in 2005 almost 240 million people will use British airports.

Iain Findlay a national official with the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists (IPMS), the union that represents air traffic controllers, warned yesterday that his members could not process any more flights. "Our skies are full," he said. "And by that I mean air traffic controllers have more planes waiting to enter UK air space than we can physically handle."

That leads to flight delays as aircraft are directed to join queues awaiting take-off and landing. Long-suffering air travellers are having to endure waiting times that make even Britain's creaking rail network look efficient.

Hope that a new £700m control centre at Swanwick in Hampshire would yield an immediate increase in capacity, and ease the burden on the system, is looking premature. Ministers believe that the complex, which is scheduled to open six years behind schedule in January, will be unable to increase the number of flights being handled for two years.

National Air Traffic Services (NATS), which was partly privatised last week, has been training controllers to work on the new equipment at the centre, but it will take some time before they will be able to use the system to its capacity.

Fifty controllers are being instructed to work on the equipment at Swanwick each week, which has created a shortfall in the number of operational staff, and made the situation worse.

The volume of air traffic is growing by five per cent a year, and the Government expects it to double in volume by 2015 at the latest. Senior manages at NATS had initially promised an increase in traffic capacity of up to 20 per cent by next summer.

Richard Everitt, the chief executive of Airline Group, which bought a controlling stake in NATS, believes that Swanwick could deliver a 30 per cent increase. But he would not be drawn on when that might be achieved. He described the 27 January opening date as "very challenging". The launch could be delayed until late autumn or even longer.

Elsewhere, there seems to be no sense of urgency on the part of ministers to publish the findings of a public inquiry expected to recommend the construction of a fifth terminal at Heathrow, to ease congestion.

There is even less enthusiasm in government circles to grasp the nettle of the need for increased runway capacity in the South-east. No politician wants to lose popularity over such a decision, the potential benefits of which are long term.

The airport operator BAA is expected to submit a planning application this week to double the capacity of Stansted airport, but there will almost certainly be a planning inquiry, which will delay any decision for years. The company wants to increase the number of passengers using Stansted airport to 25 million a year.

Meanwhile, Mr Everitt acknowledged that flight punctuality levels were lower than a year ago, and said that further delays were likely during the next few months.

Last summer, the average length of a delay for charter flights from British airports was about 40 minutes, and substantially worse at Gatwick and Manchester.

The industry predicts that within four years travelling from central London to an aircraft seat will take, on average, four hours. Air traffic congestion could also add another hour's delay on about one-third of flights taking off.

Apart from an increase in capacity or a severe economic downturn, the only means of slowing the growth in air travel is by increasing fares considerably, or by introducing a tax on aviation fuel for the first time – measures that environmentalists have been advocating for some time.