David Learmount/LONDON


UK air traffic control (ATC) is on course for partial privatisation by the middle of next year, with the government last week announcing plans to put a bill transforming the National Air Traffic Services (NATS) into a "public private partnership" before parliament during the 1999/2000 session.

As the government has a large majority, there is little doubt that the bill will survive debate. Civil Aviation Authority chairman Sir Malcolm Field expects NATS to be privatised by July to join a growing number of ATC providers worldwide obtaining autonomy from the state.

NATS' chairman Sir Roy McNulty says the £1billion ($1.6 billion) to be raised from the sale of 51% of NATS is needed immediately for investment in infrastructure, particularly the new Scottish ATC Centre at Prestwick. The centre - originally to be set up under a private finance initiative, which failed, - has not yet been given the formal go-ahead, and the latest target date of 2005 for full operation is unlikely to be met.

Lockheed Martin-led consortium Sky Solutions is working on the centre's project definition phase, but no further contracts have been awarded.

McNulty claims the much delayed New En Route Centre at Swanwick will start operating during the 2001/2 low season. Other investment plans include an upgrade of radar and ground-based navigational aids, the implementation of ATC based on a Mode S datalink system by 2008, and new infrastructure for communications, navigation and surveillance/air traffic management, particularly the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay System.

McNulty says there is no shortlist of candidates for investing in NATS, with interested parties to be "solicited" in about two months and a prospectus issued about a month later. Names linked with the possible purchase in recent months include a NATS users consortium led by British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, electricity company National Grid and Serco. With a cash injection and greater business freedom, NATS is also expected to seek expansion beyond the UK, probably as a consultant or provider of management for other air traffic services.

The sale will be accompanied by changes to the regulatory structure. The CAA runs and regulates NATS, and even after the sale the authority will remain responsible for airspace policy, with its Safety Regulation Group overseeing NATS's safety and its Economic Regulation Group checking that NATS operates within guidelines imposed because of its monopoly status.

Source: Flight International