Air traffic controllers have warned the Government of a "very real risk" to safety if it does not tackle staffing and financial crises.
In a letter to Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Transport, obtained by The Independent on Sunday, the controllers' union says that "there is a very real risk that the combination of financial pressures and operational overload will lead to air traffic safety being compromised and service levels degraded".
Written by David Luxton, Prospect's national secretary, the letter calls for "immediate government intervention" in National Air Traffic Services (Nats). It says the matter is so urgent Mr Darling should break from the summer parliamentary recess to tackle it. In addition to Nats' financial shortcomings, Prospect says that a serious shortage of controllers and increases in pressure from airlines to meet targets mean that "delays are likely to get worse rather than better between now and next summer".
The warning comes against the background of serious problems in UK commercial aviation, with airport management forced to offer baggage handlers at the largest airports a substantially improved pay offer last Friday in an attempt to stave off strikes.
With record numbers of passengers, the pressure on Britain's airports is becoming unsustainable, particularly if the huge expansion of airports announced by Government goes ahead.
Leaked papers from the London Area Control Centre at Swanwick revealed that Nats has already filed double the number of "overload" reports it made for the whole of 2001. The reports are made when controllers believe safety is being compromised because they have too many planes to deal with.
Mr Luxton's letter, delivered to Mr Darling on Friday, comes days after the influential transport select committee issued a damming report on the sale of Nats, accusing ministers of ignoring warnings that the deal was flawed.
The committee called on ministers to tear up the part-privatisation and make Nats a non-profit-making trust.
Nats denied that safety was at risk. "It will not be compromised, no matter what the pressures might be," a spokesman said.
In the short term, the future of Nats rests with the Civil Aviation Authority. The regulator, which has consistently opposed the part- privatisation, will in the next few days decide whether to let Nats raise charges to airlines.
Approval would trigger £65m of investment from BAA, the operator of Britain's biggest airports, to be matched pound for pound by the Government.
This would allow Nats to press ahead with a proposed £1bn, 10-year modernisation programme, including the development of a new facility at Prestwick, Scotland.
If the CAA says no, business will be thrown into a fresh crisis. The organisation, 46 per cent owned by BA, Virgin, easyJet and British Midland, plunged into the red when transatlantic travel fell after the 11 September attacks on the US.
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