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Monday, 8 May, 2000, 16:11 GMT 17:11 UK
Head to head: The sell-off

MPs voted on Tuesday on the government's controversial proposals to part-privatise the National Air Traffic Services.

NATS management are in favour of the plan because they say it will mean more money to fund modernisations to the system. But some of those who work in the industry are opposed to the sell-off. They say it could compromise safety.

Here Paul Noon, chief executive of the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists - which represents 3,500 air traffic controllers - and Bill Semple, chief executive of National Air Traffic Services, put their opposing perspectives.


Paul Noon, chief executive of the IPMS:
The government has made no safety case, no operational case and no economic case for privatising NATS. Their proposals will jeopardise a world class service and a world class staff.



There is no economic case for privatisation. NATS does not cost the taxpayer a penny!

Paul Noon
The House of Commons Transport Select Committee slammed privatisation as the "worst possible option" in its recent report. It said the government's proposals were "fundamentally flawed", and its arguments "disingenuous".

There is no economic case for privatisation. NATS does not cost the taxpayer a penny!

It makes a positive surplus which benefits the Exchequer. NATS' investment requirements could be generated from within NATS itself if the government would allow it - this is a Treasury inspired crisis.

The select committee concluded the sale might raise only 15m, after cost and debt recovery. The Treasury is prepared to underwrite the 1.2bn loan for the Channel Tunnel Express link, allow regional local government-owned airports to borrow commercially and loan 520m to British aerospace. Yet NATS needs a relatively small amount of investment, between 30-100m/year.

NATS is world renowned for safety and its operational expertise.

NATS is already very efficient - it has handled a huge 7% growth with similar staff numbers and reduced charges for the last six years.

Last year NATS attributable delays were down by 20% while European delays rose by 75%.

Staff and the air traffic control system are under tremendous pressure handling ever increasing traffic and bringing on new projects. The last thing they need is disruption or worry over their futures.



Privatisation will hinder European efforts at integration, harmonisation and co-operation. These are essential to capacity and safety improvements throughout Europe.

Paul Noon
Government statements about a 'strong regulator' are misleading. The operator sets standards; the regulator sets the minima.

Comparisons with airlines are also false - airlines operate in a different economic environment, are able to withdraw from unprofitable routes or diversity into other areas to generate profit - NATS is a monopoly and cannot withdraw services without effecting safety.

There is no other privatised ATC system in the world.

Privatisation will hinder European efforts at integration, harmonisation and co-operation. These are essential to capacity and safety improvements throughout Europe.

The government's proposal is unpopular - not only with controllers, pilots and all NATS staff, but also with politicians and the general public - 95% polled against in a recent Teletext poll.

The most frequent comment from members of the public is: "There are some things you can privatise, but not air traffic control."

What has emerged from the committee stage is that the bill actually allows for an immediate flotation of NATS, and a government shareholding of 25%. This is not a public/private partnership, it is privatisation.

It is an unnecessary and risky experiment that need not go ahead.


Bill Semple, chief executive of NATS:
When we fly, whether for pleasure or on business, there are two things we want to know. The first - and by far the most important - is that we will be in safe hands. The second, is that we won't be kept hanging about by long delays.

We are extremely fortunate in this country on both counts. Not only do our airlines have an excellent safety record, but also our air traffic control system is regarded as one of the finest and safest in the world. And on the second point, while delays soared in Europe last summer by 60 per cent, they actually fell here in Britain by 20 per cent, despite the high growth in air traffic levels.



If air traffic control has to continue relying on government spending, in the queue for hard-pressed public funds behind schools and hospitals, it will never have the certainty over its investment plans it so desperately needs.

Bill Semple
It is not hard to understand, therefore, why some people have reacted to the government's plans for a partial sell-off of air traffic control with the question - if it isn't broke, why try to fix it?

The answer is that the proposed Public Private Partnership (PPP) is not about how good our air traffic control system is today, but how we ensure it still provides the travelling public with a world-beating service in years to come.

Our skies are getting busier. This year we will handle around two million flights into and out of Britain's airports and many more that pass through UK airspace. That figure will double by 2015.

To control all those planes safely in the future requires a massive 1bn investment in people and technology. But, if air traffic control has to continue relying on government spending, in the queue for hard-pressed public funds behind schools and hospitals, it will never have the certainty over its investment plans it so desperately needs.



To argue that safety and the private sector do not go together is clearly rubbish.

Bill Semple
That is why the government has decided, after lengthy consultation, that it is so important to give air traffic control access to private sector funding and to private sector management expertise. The PPP will also allow National Air Traffic Services to export its safety expertise around the world.

But, ask some, will safety not be adversely affected by the introduction of the private sector? That's the question, and the answer is simple, safety can never by compromised. To argue that safety and the private sector do not go together is clearly rubbish.

All leading British airlines, like British Airways, Virgin and British Midland are in the private sector and so is BAA, the airports operator.



The PPP will help to develop our company. It will give our air traffic control service the access to finance and management expertise to... deliver a service and a level of safety that remain the envy of the rest of the world.

Bill Semple
No one questions their excellent record. These companies are the first to argue, and have done, that safety is not a public sector versus private sector issue. It is about well-run, well-regulated companies with modern systems and a well-trained workforce. That is why the airlines support a PPP.

But people are right to want more reassurance than that. And the PPP gives it. It delivers a separate, independent and tough regulator in the Civil Aviation Authority, in an arrangement that other forms of transport such as rail are seeking to copy.

Moreover, there are already in place a whole series of laws and regulations governing air traffic control - how it operates, how many hours controllers can work, how they are trained, what systems are required - that cannot be changed.

They are laws of the land, not optional extras to be changed at whim by new management. We call these safety locks, which is precisely what they are. The PPP won't, indeed cannot, un-pick any of that.

The PPP will help to develop our company. It will give our air traffic control service the access to finance and management expertise to stay ahead of air traffic growth, keeping delays to a minimum, and deliver a service and a level of safety that remain the envy of the rest of the world.

That is good news for this country and great news for the flying public.

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