25 February 2002

Man's illness shuts 400-mile air corridor

By George Jones, Political Editor

A corridor of airspace over northern England had to be closed because an air traffic controller was ill and a replacement could not be found.

The 400-mile wide section was shut to aircraft last night and the night before because the newly-privatised National Air Traffic Services was understaffed.

Other workers refused to replace their sick colleague, resulting in the closure of airspace 200 miles either side of a line from Humberside to Copenhagen.

It is believed to have caused delays to planes flying between America and northern Europe, forcing them to make detours.

A Nats spokesman said last night that only a "handful" of flights would have been affected by the closure.

He added: "It doesn't happen very often and was only a temporary problem. It had a minimal affect on traffic. Flights were just rerouted between 10pm and 6am both nights. A number of staff completed their training last week so there will be enough cover from this week onwards."

He denied that Nats could find no replacement due to low morale and poor industrial relations at the control centre in Swanwick, Hampshire, which opened at the end of last month.

"That's absolute nonsense. People won't always come into work at very short notice, but we have excellent industrial relations," he said.

Stephen Byers, the Transport Secretary, confirmed yesterday that the Government has agreed to a £30 million emergency loan to save the newly-privatised air traffic control service from financial failure.

A decline in air traffic following September 11 had led to a shortfall that needed to be dealt with, Mr Byers said.

The amount was still being discussed with the banks and the National Air Traffic Services (Nats) but he said he "would not disagree" with the figure of £30 million.

Last week the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR) denied that there was a financial crisis but banking sources disclosed that a loan deal had been agreed.

Mr Byers told ITV's Jonathan Dimbleby programme: "The Government and the banks are looking at ways on a commercial basis [where] we can provide a loan to Nats . . . which will be repaid at commercial rates."

Asked what would have happened to Nats if the Government had not lent it the money, Mr Byers said: "Who knows, but it seemed to be the right thing to do. Really it was the only option in town."

He said the rescue package involved a potential increase in charges, lower costs and in the short-term a bridging loan facility to which the Government would contribute.

The Government owns 49 per cent of Nats, 46 per cent is held by the major airlines and employees have the remaining five per cent.

Mr Byers said the Government had always said it would be "strong shareholders" in Nats and would take an interest.

"While it was right and appropriate if there was a short-term financial difficulty that the Government should make a contribution, it was not a gift of public money. It would be a loan on commercial rates," he said.

It is understood that another £30 million will be supplied by the banks that underwrote the part-sale of Nats last summer.

Mr Byers denied that Nats was "another Railtrack of the skies" because 49 per cent of it remained under Government control.

He said: "I'm not going to repeat that botched privatisation as far as air traffic control is concerned."