Gavin Strang


Pie-in-sky policy not working - an article by Gavin Strang in the Edinburgh Evening News

12 August 2002

Holiday-makers jetting off for some sunshine this summer should spare a thought for the air traffic controllers guiding their planes.

Because one year after it was privatised, all is not well at National Air Traffic Services (NATS).

In the last month alone the House of Commons Transport Select Committee has slammed the ‘cost-cutting and penny pinching mentality foisted on NATS’ by privatisation.. The National Audit Office has issued a warning about NATS’ crippling level of debt. And an internal briefing from NATS’ Chief Operating Officer has slammed air traffic control related delays as ‘dire’.

Staff numbers are being cut. NATS has announced that it plans to cut over one in five engineers - a reduction of almost 300. Cutting back on engineers just as NATS’ massive new centre at Swanwick is getting up and running must be a bad idea. And in a field like air traffic control, once engineering expertise is lost it is very difficult to build back up again. NATS also plans to reduce the number of air traffic service assistants by nearly 300 - almost one in four - a decision which the Transport Select Committee condemned as ‘incredible’.

Investment has been delayed. Supporters of the privatisation often argued that it would allow NATS to invest in its infrastructure with private money. But just three months after privatisation, NATS announced that the construction of the New Scottish Centre at Prestwick was to be delayed. And last month the Transport Select Committee warned that they think it ‘highly unlikely’ that NATS will meet the new intended completion date of 2009.

The investment problems may not stop at Prestwick. The National Audit Office has warned that ‘…there is still a risk that NATS will not be able to fund and deliver its investment plan.’

NATS has already needed millions of pounds of public money to bail it out of financial difficulties. The privatised NATS was left particularly exposed to world events, as the National Audit Office highlighted last month. NATS and the Civil Aviation Authority had warned that the extremely high level of debt that the privatised NATS was carrying would leave NATS vulnerable to adverse incidents. CAA chair, Roy NcNulty, has now said that NATS’ financial structure has ‘proved to be inappropriate’. And as the private shareholders of NATS are all major established airlines, they suffered severe financial problems at precisely the same time as NATS itself did.

So when the atrocities of 11 September caused a sudden decline in air traffic, steeply diminishing NATS’ income, NATS suffered much more than it needed to. Had the economic structure of air traffic control in this country been as it was before privatisation, I am convinced that NATS would have been much better able to weather the impact of 11 September.

The Keep Our Skies Safe group of MPs argued strongly for an injection of government money, even though we are opposed to the present framework of regulation and private ownership. The government went on to provide NATS with a £30million loan.

Morale is low, as reports of poor performance are splashed all over the media. Take a poll of international pilots and they will tell you that the UK’s air traffic system had a world record second to none. But its reputation is now suffering. There have been three major computer failures in the last six months. Ryanair has condemned the ‘serious decline in the service levels of NATS’ . JMC Airlines has said that NATS’ performance is ‘so abysmal that carriers who have other options are seeking to re-route to avoid NATS controlled airspace’. And Colin Chisholm, NATS Chief Operating Officer, has warned his staff that performance has been ‘truly awful’. All this at a time when traffic levels have been down.

Privatisation always was a bad idea. The control of air traffic entering our skies and traversing the length and breadth of these islands requires a monopoly provider - there is not the scope for competition as there was in some other privatisations. Nor is there much scope for NATS to improve its revenue by enhancing services, so the only way for the private sector owner of NATS to significantly improve the return on its capital is to cut costs - which raises safety concerns.

Privatisation endangers the excellent working relationship between the UK’s civil and military air traffic controllers, and threatens the seamless operation that we would need if there were a threat to our national security.

Privatisation is also a public relations disaster waiting to happen. The privatisation was unpopular before it happened - in an NOP poll, five times as many people opposed the sell-off than supported it. But in the future, if there is a serious incident, however irrelevant privatisation may be, it may prove impossible to disentangle privatisation from the disaster in the minds of commentators and public alike. This government would get the blame regardless.

So how do we get out of this mess?

Last month the House of Commons Transport Select Committee said that NATS privatisation should be reviewed ‘before it does terminal damage to the United Kingdom’s aviation industry and vital national interests’. The Committee is right.

My view is that our air traffic control is a public service and it should be brought back into the public sector, under public control. That is the way we make sure that safety is the overriding priority. The private sector is not an appropriate environment for an activity where there ought to be just one driving consideration: the safety and security of our skies.

NATS needs to invest for the long term, and it should be given the ability to do so. The Labour government has had the vision to give municipally-owned Manchester Airport the right to borrow on the private markets. Surely a publicly owned NATS would be allowed to do the same.

The government must make sure NATS has the infrastructure and personnel it needs as new technologies emerge. Otherwise NATS will be unable to play its part in European air traffic control in the future - bad news for our aviation industry and bad news for our economy.

The sooner National Air Traffic Services is brought back into the public sector, the better for all of us.

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This site is maintained by Gavin Strang, who was the MP for Edinburgh East from 1970 to 2010. It is part of the site maintained up until 2010.