HL Deb 12 January 1998 vol 584 cc835-6

2.44 p.m.

Lord Gainford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied that the present European air traffic control system, and in particular the controllers, can cope with the expected rise in air traffic; and whether the necessary funding is in place to secure adequate technology to cope with future demands.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, individual states are responsible for providing air traffic control services within their air space. To accommodate traffic growth, a European programme to harmonise and improve air traffic management has been adopted and centralised flow management introduced. The latter evens out the traffic flow over Europe and prevents controller overload. The 27 member states of Eurocontrol, including the UK, are expected to invest some 3 billion ecus in their air traffic systems over the next five years.

Lord Gainford

My Lords, with the leave of the House, and in advance of my Question on Wednesday, I declare an interest in that I am president of the Air Safety Group. I thank the noble Baroness for her encouraging Answer. Can she say whether any valuable lessons have been learnt following the unfortunate spate of near misses when airliners have nearly collided?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, it is important that we learn from any "airprox" incidents or near misses. All possible steps are being taken to prevent such incidents; but human error cannot be eradicated completely. In this respect, fitting the traffic collision avoidance system in aircraft, compulsory in Europe for large passenger aircraft by 1st January 2000, will produce a valuable additional safety tool.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, can the Minister say where the necessary funding for National Air Traffic Services will come from? Will National Air Traffic Services be privatised or not; and if not, how will the funding come from the public sector borrowing requirement?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord to the Front Bench, although I think it is somewhat selfless of me to do so given his long experience as a transport Minister. As far as concerns the future of National Air Traffic Services, the Government are considering a range of options for the future institutional structure. However, I should say that, whether NATS remains in the public sector or is privatised, safety will be the paramount consideration. We would not contemplate any change to NATS' status if we had any doubt over future safety standards. There is planned investment of some £800 million over the next decade. This will require a capital spend of about £100 million per annum. The department is working with the CAA and Her Majesty's Treasury to examine ways in which the CAA and NATS might be allowed a more flexible approach to raising capital than is possible at present. It is, of course, open to NATS and other public bodies to look to public/private partnerships for investment. The new Scottish air traffic control centre is being progressed in that way.