My life at work: privatising the skies

Submitted by Matthew on 15 April, 2010 - 3:45 Author: Jessica Barnard

Jessica Barnard works as an air traffic controller for NATS.

Tell us a bit about the work you do.

I work as an air traffic controller for NATS. That used to stand for National Air Traffic Services. But since our £1.5 million corporate re-branding, we are “NATS, the UK’s leading provider of air traffic management services”.

NATS is split into two businesses. NATS En Route Ltd (NERL) handles mostly flights at a higher level and looks after most of the infrastructure, such as communications, navigational aids and surveillance equipment.

NATS Services Ltd (NSL) competes for contracts to run airports’ air traffic and provide their engineering, while also providing other services such as aeronautical information, training of air traffic personnel, and consultancy services.

NERL is the more regulated part of the business, with most of its services being provided under licence from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

Who works for NATS?

Air Traffic Control Officers and assistants form teams who look after a particular area of airspace or an airport. There are engineers who look after the air traffic infrastructure. There are also support staff like me, working on research, development and maintenance projects.

The work of support staff tends to get overlooked by the operational grades, especially the controllers, many of whom think we just drink coffee all day.

Is there a union where you work?

There are notionally two unions, but effectively three. Prospect organises the controllers and engineers separately; the controllers and engineers split off to get more by bargaining alone. PCS represents admin and support grades and air traffic assistants, but we just get the crumbs from the table.

Do you get the pay and conditions you deserve?

It depends what you mean by “deserve”. We’ve got a public service background and a long history of strong unions, partly because it is an essential service and a strike would paralyse aviation in the UK. We’re aware we’ve got it good, but they are always trying to take it away.

They closed the final salary pension scheme last year; they will reduce the redundancy terms again early next year; loads of allowances have been sold off; our pay deal was a concession at three per cent last year and zero per cent this year, despite the company posting a massive profit for 2008 (£135.5 million).

How effectively have the unions defended you against these attacks?

The Prospect and PCS united slogan “One NATS, one pension” went out the window when they went into backroom talks and came out agreeing with management.

There was no one standing in front of us opposing it; we were truly sold down the river and will have a proper two-tier workforce soon.

Ordinary members don’t even know who our negotiating committees are. Our pay deal was negotiated very secretively and was really hard to understand, being based on projected RPI figures from the depth of the recession, which helped the unions and management present it as a good deal.

NATS was one of New Labour’s first examples of a “Public Private Partnership”. How is this structured?

NATS is a company with shareholders. The Government owns 49% of the shares. A consortium of seven airlines owns 42%. BAA has a 4% stake and the remaining 5% is held by the staff. The airlines have the biggest influence, exerting pressure from above and below.

The main influence the government has is through the regulator, the CAA, as would be the case even if NATS was entirely privatised.

If you didn’t know better, you’d think we were just another cut-throat, profit-driven company.

What changes have you seen since PPP?

The whole thing is really slick, run completely like a private business. The initial pretence that NATS is “not for profit” has been dropped, which a lot of workers are not happy about as we feel a real pride in working to provide an excellent, safe service.

NSL, the commercial side of the business, can compete viciously for contracts around the world. NATS trades on its prestige worldwide.

How has the recession affected NATS?

At the start of the downturn, they said they needed to make savings. At first they shed posts by not filling vacancies and terminating the contracts of contractors. Then they started offering redundancies to staff. Just yesterday we’ve heard they are going to be offering redundancies again.

They are using the recession as an excuse. They made £135.5 million last year, meaning each employee generated around £22,000 for the company!

Revenue and traffic might have fallen slightly. But to be profitable, yet making redundancies, freezing pay and closing the final salary pension scheme, just doesn’t add up.

It shows that it doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re doing, they will always come for you. Workers are not safe anywhere.

Other entries in the “My Life At Work” series, and other workers' diaries

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