The UK's new air traffic services supremo believes privatisation is the way forward for ATC

David Learmount/LONDON

Airlines are condemned to face serious air traffic control delay in European airspace for the foreseeable future unless there is a revolution in how policy decisions governing the continent's air traffic services are made, according to the new UK National Air Traffic Services (NATS) chairman.

Accepting that this year's European high season will be an air traffic management disaster, Sir Roy McNulty says: "There's going to be a hell of an inquest after this summer. The status quo is not an option."

Although McNulty is reluctant to spell it out, he sees Europe-wide air traffic services (ATS) commercialisation as the answer to the problem. The ATS harmonisation objectives set out through the Eurocontrol forum are fine, he says, but system development will remain too slow as long as national ATS providers drag their feet.

European, government-led solutions "have proved a very slow and expensive route to anywhere." The system needs an injection of commercial energy, he believes, acknowledging that this could pose political difficulties. "The question is whether the delays would have to reach a pitch where people demand that something faster is done," he says.

McNulty's backing for the commercial approach is not surprising. In 1978, he joined the then state-owned Shorts as director of finance and administration. He saw the Belfast, UK-based manufacturer through a revitalising privatisation to become part of the Bombardier Group. He joined NATS in May.

Public/private partnership

NATS is set to be privatised - or at least to have 51% of its shares floated in what the UK government calls a public/private partnership (PPP). For five years NATS has waited for a privatisation decision to enable it to secure finance for development. McNulty was hired to make the NATS PPP work and he has two and a half years to do it. The system needs £1 billion ($1.6 billion) invested over the next 10 years, he points out, and the government has made it clear that it will not provide the money.

The only question remaining is the date when the government will put the PPP before Parliament. Since the consultation phase is complete and the Parliamentary summer recess starts on 27July, McNulty believes the announcement could be as early as this week, enabling the Bill to become law by April.

"Many people questioned my sanity in taking the NATS job," says McNulty, "because the public perception is that it is a troubled organisation." He has, however, found it to be "much fitter and more efficient" than other public utilities were at privatisation. For that reason, and because NATS' sole purpose is to ensure air traffic control safety, McNulty does not expect the job cuts experienced by the other utilities. Compared with the major utilities, McNulty sees NATS as a relatively simple business, with a small number of customers, although they have the individual and collective power to insist on high efficiency in service provision.

Floating 51% of NATS will be successful, McNulty predicts, "provided that it is clear that government interference is limited to a certain number of strategic issues". This relative independence, he maintains, would give the new NATS the vigour needed not only to do its job well, but to capitalise on the organisation's wealth of expertise. McNulty believes this could be marketed and deployed to good effect within Europe and beyond it as major UK airports owner BAA has done since privatisation.

As for the standard of NATS ATS at present, McNulty insists that the UK organisation is not the cause of worsening delays in Europe this year. He says that the New En Route Centre (NERC) at Swanwick is shaping up to be a first-class unit, although it is behind schedule, and the West Drayton centre has been updated to cope with the NERC delay. He is worried, however, about the state of the Scottish ATC centre at Prestwick, which he says needs new equipment. Until the government gives the go-ahead, however, NATS does not have the capital to proceed. That, McNulty would argue, is just one example of how delay is inevitable when politicians hold the purse strings on ATC - as passengers will certainly find in Europe this year.

Source: Flight International