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Thursday, 25 January, 2001, 09:49 GMT
Fears over air traffic pay deal
Gatwick Airport
Air traffic controllers are under constant pressure
Air traffic controllers are worried that plans to bring in performance-related pay for their supervisors will see profits put before safety.

The Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists (IPMS) said about 15 senior control supervisors across the country had been asked to sign the new deals.

Nobody is able to maintain the level of competency and the ability required to keep up with the traffic levels

Angus McCormack
air traffic controller
The union is urging the supervisors to reject the contracts, which would link pay to performance targets like passenger delays and safety "incidents".

The deal could allow commercial considerations to interfere with the all-important safety culture at a time of a huge growth in air travel, the union said.

There are also reports that airlines may soon be able to claim compensation for delays caused by air traffic control.

Safety first

IPMS spokesman Ian Finlay told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We don't believe that performance-related pay has a role to play in what is in essence a safety-orientated system."

He said the deals - offered to senior operational managers at Aberdeen, the City of London, Cardiff and Farnborough, Hants - gave controllers an incentive to cut corners.

The first performance target is a safety target

Colin Chisholm
chief executive, Nats
"It puts into their mind the notion that if they move planes quicker and closer they could get some sort of bonus."

But Colin Chisholm, the chief executive of the National Air Traffic System (Nats) denied that the move would jeopardise passenger safety.

He said managers would be "offended" at any suggestion they would not put safety above any other consideration.

He said most senior and middle managers already had a "performance element" to their contracts, adding: "With all the operational managers the first performance target is a safety target."

Many air traffic control centres are facing problems due to chronic staff shortages and increasing flight levels.

A report by Europe's air navigation organisation, Euro Control, cited five occasions during December when staff shortages affected flights.

Some air traffic controllers have raised concerns about the pressure they are under.

Jumbo landing
More planes than ever are using the UK's airports
Angus McCormack, a controller based at Heathrow, said: "Nobody is able to maintain the level of competency and the ability required to keep up with the traffic levels that we have.

"We are giving landing clearances, which traditionally were 5-600 feet, now you are giving them 100 feet off the runway.

"The pilots are quite attuned to that, but it leaves you very little time for dealing with something going wrong."

'Profits before safety'

Government plans to part-privatise the service have already caused controversy.

Nats needs massive investment in order to cope with an anticipated large rise in passenger numbers in the next few years.

The sale plan involves 46% of Nats shares going to a private company and a further 5% to the employees, under a deal known as a public-private partnership.

But opponents fear that private involvement could mean profits being put before safety.

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