David Learmount/LONDON

The UK Government is seeking an established company to take a 46% stake in National Air Traffic Services (NATS) after confirming plans to sell 51% of stock for around £500 million ($800 million) within the next two years. UK electricity distributor National Grid and France's Thomson-CSF are known to be in the running. UK transport secretary John Prescott says "there is certainly no lack of interest" in the privatisation.

Other potential bidders include UK systems operator Serco, GEC and possibly Lockheed Martin. Transport minister Helen Liddell , who 24h later was moved from her post to become energy minister in a wider government reshuffle, says a single large company may be preferred to a consortium. The successful bidder will have 46% of a public/private partnership with the government, which will hold 49% of stock, plus a "golden share", with employees offered 5%. Prescott says there is no requirement for bidders to be British or European.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation's Chicago convention is not prescriptive about the structure of an ATS provider, but requires that states retain responsibility for safety.

The UK Civil Aviation Authority's Safety Regulation Group is to remain responsible for safety oversight of NATS, but a review by the government is scrutinising safety oversight provision for all forms of transport.

A consultation paper released at the time of the privatisation announcement says part of the government holding should be "non-voting, to allow the partner to have a controlling interest". The golden share will allow it to issue instructions to NATS in case of crisis or national security threat and will "protect" its rights in key areas, including "issue of new shares and the company's dividend policy".

Prescott says the public/private partnership should help NATS secure £1 billion of investment over 10 years, while bringing in commercial management expertise. Answering safety concerns voiced by the unions and a large number of Members of Parliament over the privatisation, NATS chairman Sir Roy McNulty says "investment is the key to safety and the answer to delay".

The government has also made it clear that NATS will be seeking to expand its business overseas by bidding for ATC management contracts.

• Continental Airlines chief executive Gordon Bethune has urged the US Government to privatise the nation's air traffic control system before delays worsen. Bethune says Canada's ATC - privatised as a trust - illustrates how the USA might remodel its own system.

"They have been able to operate ATC at less cost and with greater efficiency than under government," he says, warning that "gridlock is not a problem for the future - it is happening now". On 23 July, 222 Continental flights were delayed for an average of 77min at its Newark hub, with the worst delay surpassing 2h.

Source: Flight International