Wednesday, November 17, 1999 Published at 16:27 GMT
Selling-off the skies
The air traffic controllers union is opposed to privatisation
By Transport Correspondent Tom Heap
The sell-off of air traffic control is the most unpopular measure of the transport bill for Labour MPs. It is also opposed by a majority of public opinion. Why is the government so devoted to the idea and what has inflamed opposition in parliament and in the country?
The government will sell a 51% stake in the National Air Traffic Control Service (NATS). Employees will get 5% of the total shares. The government will also hold a golden share to protect key rights such as state security. Safety regulation will be separated from NATS and will remain in public hands as part of the Civil Aviation Authority. The government claims this invalidates the argument that the new arrangements will put profits before safety.
NATS needs around £100m of investment every year to pay for technological development. The treasury do not want this borrowing on the governments books. They do want to get the money from the sale which has been ringfenced for transport spending. The government also claim that NATS would be in a much stronger position to expand into running air traffic control in other countries if it were free of government control.
The heart of Labour's rank and file doesn't warm to any privatisation. But prior to the election their shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Andrew Smith, said, "Our air is not for sale."
Gavin Strang, once the transport minister who first announced the sell-off, is now vehemently against it. He led 130 labour MPs in signing a motion opposing the sale.
The transport select committee has also come out against the sale. Most vocal are the air traffic controllers union who have always maintained that safety would be undermined by a private company being in control.
The pilots union also doesn't want it. Privatisation of NATS is a Conservative policy but it is likely that they will vote against the sell off if it makes trouble for the government. The public wants air traffic control to be an absolute certainty which they never have to worry about.
Flying is a scarey business, especially as the skies get busier. The safety record to date has been extremely good and most people are unaware of future pressures - so the view is 'If it ain't broke don't fix it'.
Since the crash and the furore over the whether privatisation is partly to blame, the opponents of the sell off have redoubled their efforts to bury the bill.
The unions accused the government of trying to set up a "Railtrack of the skies". This angered Transport SecretaryJohn Prescott who felt that they were using the fears generated by Paddington for their own political ends.
He appears to have been unshaken by the impact of the rail disaster believing that if the sell off was a good idea before it remains the best option today.
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