No subsidy for the new air traffic control system

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The Independent Online

The launch of a new air traffic control centre has come at the worst possible time for the newly privatised company that runs British airspace. Although yesterday's transfer began smoothly enough, the warning of up to two weeks of delays while the new computer system took over was hardly designed to enhance passenger confidence. What is most damaging, however, is that the changeover is taking place during a crisis over the finances of the new company.

The launch of a new air traffic control centre has come at the worst possible time for the newly privatised company that runs British airspace. Although yesterday's transfer began smoothly enough, the warning of up to two weeks of delays while the new computer system took over was hardly designed to enhance passenger confidence. What is most damaging, however, is that the changeover is taking place during a crisis over the finances of the new company.

A consortium of seven airlines bought a 46 per cent share of National Air Traffic Services last year, with staff taking 5 per cent and the Government retaining a minority 49 per cent share. Within two months, however, two planes were flown into the World Trade Centre, and the projections for air travel in the business plan looked waywardly optimistic.

Last week The Independent reported that the consortium's bankers have appealed to Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, for the Government to bail out the new company. Mr Byers should tell them that it is no business of the taxpayer to subsidise air travel, already one of the most tax-privileged forms of transport. The airlines took a risk when they bought the shares, and will have to recover any shortfall from their customers.

In any case, air passenger numbers have recovered substantially since the initial fall after 11 September, and the long-term outlook for air travel remains one of sustained growth, as is confirmed by the go-ahead for Terminal 5 at Heathrow and the planning of new runways in the south-east of England.

Even if the prospects for aviation were as gloomy as they seemed immediately after 11 September, there would be no case for state subsidy. The industry already receives a substantial hidden benefit in the form of lightly taxed fuel for domestic flights and the absence of any tax at all on fuel for international flights. Any assessment of the long-term prospects for aviation ought to take account of the possibility of international agreement to end this subsidy.

Air travel is, of course, a liberating phenomenon, but it is not a social service, and those who benefit from it must recognise that it is expensive – not least in the damage done to the environment.

Those who use air transport should bear the full cost of their journey – and that includes the cost of a modern, efficient and safe air traffic control system.

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