27 January 2002

Design faults at £650m air centre are 'threat to safety'

By Clayton Hirst and Geoffrey Lean

Flaws in the design of Britain's new air traffic control centre could endanger the safety of passengers, a confidential official memorandum reveals.

The memo – written by a senior Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector after a tour of the centre in Swanwick, Hampshire, two weeks ago – warns of problems with the clarity of some computer screens. It says: "These design deficiencies may have implications for air safety." In another cost–cutting move, the National Air Traffic Control System (Nats) will this week ask the Government to relax regulations governing air traffic control. Meanwhile, problems at Swanwick, which is due to open early this morning, are likely to cause air
travellers long delays.

The disclosure of the memo – seen by The Independent on Sunday – is another headache for Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Transport, who is already facing criticism for cost overruns at the £650m centre and for the delays it will cause to flights over the next week. He is understood to have cancelled a visit to the centre planned for tomorrow.

The confidential memo also says that the computer screens could breach health regulations, giving rise to "concerns about the health, safety and welfare of operational staff".

It is yet another setback for the troubled £800m part-privatisation of the air traffic control system. The group of airlines running the system – including BA and Virgin Atlantic – have postponed the construction of another control centre at Prestwick, Scotland, by up to two years, as part of a plan to save £200m.

The HSE has raised its concerns with both Nats and the Civil Aviation Authority, and is to publish a formal report on the facility next month. Nats admitted late last week that "there are a number of outstanding issues to be resolved" at Swanwick, but refused to say when the problems would be ironed out.

Meanwhile, the leaking of plans to build three new airport runways in south-east England, before even fellow ministers had been fully consulted, has infuriated politicians and senior civil servants across Whitehall. One described the explosive effect of the leak as like a "daisycutter", after the giant bombs dropped in Afghanistan.

They believe that it is a clear breach of guidelines drawn up by Robin Cook, the Leader of the House – and endorsed by the Prime Minister – which are designed to ensure that Parliament is the first to be informed of major new policies.