The UK has finally committed to join the small band of states which have separated - or at least distanced - provision of air traffic services (ATS) in their airspace from government, and hence from the meddling and prevarication of politicians.

So far the models used have included corporatisation (New Zealand, Germany), in which the government is the shareholder, and a non-profit trust (Canada).

The UK model is the first whose equity can be traded on the stock market, albeit indirectly through the shares of the companies in the consortium that will be awarded the task of partnering the government and both financing and running the service.

It is far too early to know the government's mind - because the government does not know its own mind yet - but speculation on how long it will take for ministers to sell off some or all of its 49% share is inevitable. It would depend, more than anything else, on how well the new National Air Traffic Services (NATS) is seen to perform, but this future possibility would be one of the best incentives that any company could have to do a good job.

Meanwhile, what is the likely effect of giving over control of ATS to private enterprise?

No new management with its corporate head screwed on would meddle with the front line of an organisation whose operational performance is recognisably high quality, except to invest in it to raise its capability further. But the opportunities for increasing efficiency in middle and higher management are plentiful. No matter that NATS has, for years, operated successfully, covering its costs out of user charges, and even provided modest profits to plough back into the system, it has nevertheless been run by a Civil Service administration. The people in it have an entirely appropriate public service ethos, and they have been constrained in their decision-making processes - from procurement decisions to policy planning - by the turgid systems associated with government organisations. Ultimately, their budgeting and investment in the future has been controlled by the government, which always has competing priorities in which ATS features well down the list. The need for investment, in fact, is the whole reason for this semi-privatisation, so management efficiency improvements should not be a problem.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) will soon be able to be a truly independent safety and economic watchdog for the UK's ATS. Its job will never be more vital than while the new organisation is settling down, during which the Safety Regulation Group's long experience of monitoring the existing NATS may well be needed to head off problems before they occur.

The international ramifications of this privatisation, meanwhile, are potentially enormous, and it is only a matter of time before they are felt.

Europe is a prime example of a congested air traffic management (ATM) system which is made considerably less effective by flight information region (FIR) boundaries that are - with a few exceptions - drawn along national borders instead of structured for ATM efficiency and safety. European Transport Commissioner Loyola de Palacio recognises that this is a bad structure and is gradually persuading national governments that the way ahead is a "single European sky". In southern Africa the COMESA group is planning a vast regional communications, navigation and surveillance/ATM system in which nationality does not impinge on ATM.

The International Air Transport Association and International Civil Aviation Organisation back all moves to get governments and nationality out of ATS provision, and privatisation in, for the sake of simplicity of structure, the need for investment, and management efficiency. NATS, especially if it performs well enough for the government to get right out of it, has the capacity to be the kind of professional ATS provider which will not be limited by national borders.

The new NATS is not a blind leap of faith - it is a calculated step into the future. Well-tried safety-net systems are in place. All they have to do is work.

Source: Flight International