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Wednesday, 16 February, 2000, 17:24 GMT
Selling off the skies

By BBC transport correspondent Tom Heap

Who will control the planes in our sky a year from now? There's a fierce row in Parliament which threatens one of the biggest backbench rebellions of this government.

There are two volatile ingredients: politics and safety. Labour MPs never cheer privatisation and many find it particularly hard to swallow selling off something so elemental as the control of air space.

The government's plan

The policy is to sell 46% of National Air Traffic Control Service (NATS) shares to a private company and a further 5% to the employees. They call this a public private partnership.

The government will retain the power to control aeroplane movements at times of war or national emergency.

Safety regulation will be split away from NATS and remain in the hands of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). NATS will control aeroplane movements, subject to the safety rules set down by the CAA, and charge airline for the service.

If it ain't broke......

The current system has an enviable safety record and an acceptable level of punctuality, so why change it?

Air travel is growing at a phenomenal rate. Last year the number of passengers flying in European airspace grew by 7.5%. At this rate you would have twice the number by 2010. NATS need massive investment to cope with this.

Better technology gives you tighter control of the space which enables you to pack in more planes. If we don't get the new equipment, the choice is between huge delays on the ground or danger in the sky. Delay would be the only option. This is already happening in continental Europe.

The anti-privatisation campaign

Opposition to the government's plans doesn't just come from left-leaning backbenchers. The unions representing the air traffic controllers themselves and pilots insist that safety will be put at risk and money will be wasted.

The unease over safety is rooted in the belief that the pursuit of profit will conflict with the highest safety standards.

Possible examples of this would be a reluctance to spend on the best technology or attempting to keep controllers at their station for longer than the current 90 minutes maximum.

The unions do see the need for greater investment. Ideally they'd like to see this coming from treasury coffers, arguing that in the long run ATC is a money making business from which the government will profit.

If this can't happen they want the commercial partner to be a trust or a non-profit making enterprise.

What will happen?

There are 50 MPs who signed an amendment opposing the government's plans but they are reluctant rebels. The Conservatives also oppose the PPP because they think it's a clumsy compromise.

Even if they join together with the Lib Dems and nationalist parties it is still doubtful whether they have sufficient numbers to inflict a defeat. They'd much prefer to reach an accommodation with John Prescott than vote against his bill.

After the Ladbroke Grove Rail crash, and all the questions over safety and privatisation, it looked as if the public unease might force a policy change. Mr Prescott left the door open for a partnership with a non-profit making consortium.

A few months later and that momentum has been lost. Unless the public mood changes, the government will probably get their way.

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