The UK Civil Aviation Authority has raised the spectre of a return to massive disruption to air travel if a way is not found to fund the large-scale capital investment required for the National Air Traffic Service (NATS) to keep pace with traffic growth.

CAA chairman Sir Malcolm Field rejected the present method of using the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) to fund major investment, warning that the scheme would "-disembowel NATS technically and operationally" if allowed to grow.

The CAA submitted a range of options to the new UK Government earlier this month, including its preferred recommendation that its NATS subsidiary become a regulated utility owned by the public and private sector.

The NATS has been the centre of a continuing controversy since the earlier Conservative Government sought unsuccessfully to privatise the country's air-traffic-control operations completely.

The options under review range from 100% privatisation to maintaining the NATS as a CAA subsidiary. Field's aim, however, is to allow the NATS the "-freedom to act commercially". The next four months "-is critical to the future of the ATC [air-traffic-control] service-only time will tell whether this means privatisation or some other arrangement", he says.

He warns, however, that failure to find a solution to the funding problem would result in a "-return to the late 1980s, when temporary marquees to house delayed passengers and clowns to entertain them" were an annual feature of every holiday season.

NATS requires around £130 million ($220 million) annually for the next five years to fund its plans, against a background of 55% traffic growth between 1995 and 2010.

NATS chairman Malcolm Argent, in the annual report, says: "A satisfactory funding mechanism needs to be found, which maintains the integrity of NATS operations and technical infrastructure. Meanwhile, NATS will seek to ensure success of the two PFI projects now progressing."

An Oceanic Area Control Centre is being provided by EDS at Prestwick and negotiations are nearly complete with Lockheed Martin/Bovis joint venture Sky Solutions to build the New Scottish Centre at the same site as part of the CAA's two centre ATC policy - the other is at Swanwick.

Despite the CAA's deep dislike of the PFI, Field says that he will not hold up the Sky Solutions deal to await a decision from the Government on future funding, although he agrees that NATS is still in a position to pull out of the deal.

Source: Flight International