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Thursday, 1 August, 2002, 08:16 GMT 09:16 UK
Flight delays 'risk air traffic reputation'
Swanwick air traffic control centre
The Swanwick control centre cost 623m
The reputation and credibility of the new 623m air traffic control centre at Swanwick is being severely hit by delays, senior executives have admitted.

An internal staff briefing leaked to BBC Radio 4's Today programme reveals that managers at National Air Traffic Services (Nats) are working "desperately hard" to reduce hold-ups this summer.

They believe that failure will severely damage their standing with the world's airlines.

The warning emerged the day after senior MPs attacked the "cost-cutting and penny-pinching mentality" foisted on Nats since its part-privatisation.

But the chief executive of Nats, Richard Everett, defended the Swanwick centre, saying staff were getting to grips with a very complex - but essential - new system.

'Truly awful'

The internal telephone briefing line for staff reveals that delays have reached "dire" levels.

On that line Nats chief executive Colin Chisholm says: "A really truly awful week last week.


The adverse press we're suffering is really going to damage to us

Colin Chisholm
"Two-hundred-and-seventeen-thousand minutes of delay or so at Swanwick.

"That's a fairly dire position I have to say for our customers."

In the message, recorded for the rest of the summer in mid-July, Mr Chisholm goes on to say that managers are trying to improve the situation.

In the message Mr Chisholm also warns that leaks to the press are not helping the air traffic control service.

He says: "The adverse press we're suffering is really going to damage to us."

Mr Chisholm says Nats' ability to stay in business at Britain's airports depends not on being the cheapest but on its reputation.

'Not accurate'

Damage to that reputation hurts its ability to stay in business, win new business, and weakens influence with Government and the European community, he added.

Mr Chisholm also reflects on the difficulty of doing media interviews following leaks.

"You can't have an intelligent and detailed technical debate in the media.


This part privatisation has hardly delivered the promised brave new world for air traffic control

Martin Salter MP

"The trade union side and myself end up simplifying things and end up saying things that are not absolutely accurate in all senses."

Turning to the question of pay, Mr Chisholm also mentions the company's difficult financial position.

The leak follows criticism of Nats decision to cut staff, by the House of Commons transport select committee.

The MPs said: "We are not convinced that Nats' systems are sufficiently robust to enable it to reduce the numbers of safety-critical staff."

They warned that insufficient investment could leave Nats ill-equipped to compete with new satellite-based air traffic control services, which are being developed in Europe and North America.

Staff shortage

Labour MP Martin Salter said: "We've got staff shortages, low morale, faulty equipment and, as the select committee report made clear, we've got a cost cutting package being put in place of 200m.

"I whole-heartedly endorse the select committee's report that we should go back to the drawing board on the structure of Nats."

Chief executive of Nats, Richard Everett, admitted the service did have "a very bad week" two weeks ago.

But he said he was pleased with the way Swanwick was working even though they had 40 less controllers than they would like.

Mr Everett defended the Swanwick centre and said staff were learning to use a very complex new system which was unequivocally necessary.

"We need the capacity of Swanwick because we are going to have to deal, over the next ten years, with a 50% increase in flight from two million to three million."

The Department of Transport, which said it would study the report before publishing its response, said it recognised that Nats' financial situation needed strengthening.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Simon Montague
"Bosses have told staff that recent hold-ups are damaging the company's image"
Richard Everett, Chief Executive of NATS
"Our safety record continues to improve"
Martin Salter MP
"We should go back to the drawing board on NATS"
See also:

23 May 02 | UK
24 Jul 02 | Politics
20 May 02 | Business
23 Jul 02 | Politics
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