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The coming face of air travel

There isn't one: No pilots and no air traffic controllers

When NATS, the UK National Air Traffic Control Service, was partially privatized in 2001, with the state retaining a 49% share, it started a long-running battle royal over privatization of such services across Europe. The remaining shares are owned by the major UK airlines (The Airline Group) and NATS staff.

It’s good business. NATS controllers alone direct almost 2.5 million flights a year, earning more than GBP 150 million profit and paying its shareholders almost 25% of that.

The problem is that mistakes were still increasing and the pressure for ‘real’ privatization has been matched equally by unions’ opposition to this move. Well, you know that in March this year the commercial lobby won and the UK government agreed to sell its share to, wait for it, Germany’s state-owned air traffic service, Deutsche Flugsicherung, while the airlines sold their shares to investment house Apax.

Why, you may ask? The answer came this morning as The Airline Group announced a joint venture with NASA and a bold plan that will do away with air traffic controllers, and pilots, over the next decade.

NASA’s systems have been developed over the last 30 years and can handle an estimated “two billion take-offs and landings without pilots or air traffic controllers,” on existing hubs or even local airstrips for smaller planes.

Since human drivers were banned from UK highways last year, this should come as no surprise – driver-less cars use similar turbo-GPS systems – all based on the latest gaming technologies merged with NASA’s vast experience and software skills. Boeing, Airbus and Bombardier are understood to be ready to announce their participation within weeks.

This is clearly good news for passengers, with the promise of reduced costs and improved safety, but disastrous for the new investors in NATS.

We understand from a credible source that the German government and Apax are privately negotiating to cancel the deal – trying to avoid major blushes all round.

Warning: Hazardous thinking at work

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