Air traffic out of control

Who is to blame for the recent mayhem in the skies?

Proletarian writers

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While everyone involved has been keen to point the finger somewhere else, the truth is that the meltdown was an accident waiting to happen – a result of the chronic underfunding that besets every one of Britain’s privatised services.

Proletarian writers

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There could be no more striking example of the fragility of current capitalist society than the complete balls-up that overtook British aviation on two days at the end of August, leaving over 1,850 flights cancelled over two days, thousands of passengers stranded, and incurring a likely bill topping £159m.

According to the hapless chief of the National Air Traffic Services (Nats), Martin Rolfe, the mayhem was all caused by just one rogue piece of flight data, which ripped right through the computer, disabling both the regular and back-up systems – thereby obliging workers to have recourse to pencil and paper and slowing everything down to a fraction of the normal speed.

And yet, when Nats was part-privatised in 2001, under the same kind of ‘public-private’ scam as that which crippled the NHS, the promise was that infusions of private capital and the application of dynamic capitalist management styles would modernise Nats for the new millennium.

Instead what has happened is that from the outset the privatised Nats has become a magnet for speculative investment, encouraging successive CEOs to concentrate less on the business of safely and efficiently ‘pushing tin’ and more on the business of fattening the purses of directors and shareholders.

Privatisation, dividends and debt

Whilst in theory the government’s holding of the ‘golden share’ (49 percent) enables it to veto board decisions, the government side of this ‘partnership’ would appear to get the fuzzy end of the lollipop. Before Nats was privatised, it only owed £330m to the National Loan Fund. Post-privatisation it woke up to find itself owing £733m to a banking consortium whose repayment terms were much less forgiving.

A contemporary commentator helpfully tried to disentangle the ins and outs of this imbroglio, explaining that the privatisation process kicked off by saddling Nats with an extra £403m of debt.

“To put this figure into perspective, its annual revenue was around £600m in 2000/1, so this extra debt amounts to around eight months revenue, which it is having to pay back with interest to the banks over the next 20 years.

“This extraordinary state of affairs came about because the partner chosen by the government for the Nats public-private partnership (PPP) – the Airline Group – paid a mere £50m for its ‘partnership’ and a 46 percent share in Nats. The government ended up getting £758m as a result of the transaction, but the bulk of that came from a £733m loan taken out, not by the Airline Group, but by Nats, and repayable by Nats.

“Of the £758m received by the government, £330m was required to repay Nats’ outstanding loans to the National Loans Fund, so the Treasury got around £428m net for the transaction.” (Why Nats’ debt was doubled by David Morrison, Labour and Trade Union Review, October 2002)

This raw deal for the public purse and bonanza for private capital set the tone thenceforth. In 2005, Nats paid out its first £5m dividend to shareholders. Between 2005 and 2020 a total of £550m more was paid out – in one year alone £82m was paid out. Remuneration for directors was similarly astronomical. Last year, Nats boss Martin Rolfe was paid a total of £1.4m, including a fixed wedge of £563,000 and bonuses. (Blame for air traffic control meltdown lies closer to home by Alistair Osborne, The Times, 31 August 2023)

Blame game

Government officials and politicians in Whitehall now criticise the air companies for not taking more responsibility for compensating the travelling public, while the airlines are criticising the Civil Aviation Authority for failing to subject Nats to proper scrutiny. With everybody blaming everybody else for the latest mess-up and its aftermath, a light will temporarily be shone on what would normally be concealed behind boardroom doors.

Pretending surprise and outrage over the greed and incompetence of all the players in this farce – a farce that could so easily have tipped into tragedy – the media will for a week or two call for heads to roll and tighter regulation to be applied. Just enough to calm down public disquiet and let the news cycle pedal off to pastures new.

It is the job of communists to explain to workers that the greed and incompetence of the ruling class is not a temporary hazard or a few bad apples but rather a permanent feature of moribund and parasitic imperialism.

Only with the overthrow of imperialism and the construction in its stead of socialism will end the social chaos of the present, no matter what fancy new regulatory regime is enacted to ‘tame’ capitalism.