Julian Moxon/PARIS

Additional reporting David Learmount/LONDON

Pan European air traffic control (ATC) delays, resulting from traffic logjams over Greece, should be reduced considerably during the summer, following an employment agreement between air traffic controllers and the Greek civil aviation authority.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) infrastructure department in Brussels says it expects to see a clear improvement in traffic flow rates within a few weeks as a result of the changes.

Greece was top of the European list of problem ATC areas last summer, contributing the highest proportion of delays to the system in a year when overall delays showed a major increase. Figures compiled by Eurocontrol show that although Greece handled 7% of European traffic during the summer, it was responsible for 18.6% of ATC-related delays. Its four major airports topped the list of European airports blamed for delays.

The problems have been compounded by the controllers' refusal to operate a new ATC centre built near Athens by Thomson-CSF, which was due to become operational in January last year. This has been standing unused but is now being brought into service. Meanwhile, the old procedural system of separating traffic has been in operation, causing a serious traffic bottleneck for aircraft flying across, into and out of the country.

An agreement signed in November between the Greek Air Traffic Controllers' Association (GATCA) and the CAA has improved considerably the relationship between the two, mainly as a result of the passing of a law allowing for incentive payments. According to GATCA, the deal calls for "the engagement of 190 controllers through 1999, payroll adjustments for the operation of the new ATC system and the improvement of air traffic services". The deal also includes a clause calling for air traffic services to become autonomous "within 1999".

Eurocontrol and Thomson-CSF are helping get the new system operational. One controller says: "We're doing trials and expect to be fully operational by mid-February". He adds, however, that the long period of idleness has led to "a few minor technical problems".

IATA's infrastructure centre says that introducing such a new system, along with the airspace resectorisation, is no small task, so it would be unwise to expect it to run to full capacity before the Easter holiday rush in early April, and perhaps not by then.

"We are optimistic, but we have been disappointed too often [by the introduction of new systems] to hope for too much," says IATA.

Source: Flight International