Source: The Australian Jan 10 2008 

THOUSANDS of people returning to work at the end of the school holidays face potential air travel chaos if a meeting next week fails to solve an eight-month impasse between air traffic controllers and Airservices Australia.

The air traffic controllers union, Civil Air, has applied to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission for a bargaining period since its agreement expired just before Christmas.

The union has warned it will ask members to take protected industrial action if a meeting with the management on Wednesday does not see some movement in negotiations....

"We've notified the bargaining period but I think the important thing is we have a another meeting scheduled with Airservices on the 14th, and we'd be hopeful that would at least make some progress, given that we haven't made any substantive progress over the last eight months," said Civil Air executive director Peter McGuane.

Civil Air and Airservices have been trading accusations about staff shortages that have caused delays and required airlines to fly through uncontrolled airspace.

Civil Air says mismanagement has led to a chronic shortage of staff and that controllers have been asked to work unreasonable levels of overtime.

Airservices accuses the controllers of refusing to work overtime, making themselves unavailable and calling in sick as part of an undeclared industrial campaign.

The union has to conduct a secret ballot of members before it can take industrial action but feeling among controllers appears to be running high.

The major sticking point in the negotiations is an Airservices move to reduce sick leave.

Air traffic controllers have unlimited sick leave but Airservices wants to cap it at 15 days to bring the controllers into line with other workers. It is also seeking a more flexible rostering system and a simplification of a complicated endorsement system.

Mr McGuane said the Airservices board had instructed the management to remove a provision that gives controllers sick leave as required. "And we have instructions from our membership about that particular condition, so I suppose for both sides that's a deal-breaker," he said.

The dispute created headlines when a "vision statement" issued by the union last year suggested a restructuring that would see pay rises of between 18 per cent and 63 pay cent to retain air traffic controllers.

Airservices has since proposed a 4.1 per cent annual pay rise over three years in the new agreement and has offered guarantees that controllers who have long-term illnesses will not be disadvantaged by a cap on sick leave.

Mr McGuane said there had been some movement on the pay aspect but there were still fundamental issues on which the parties remained apart. He denied the union was still seeking a rumoured 25 per cent average pay rise.

"Basically, we're looking at three options, which is their proposal, our proposal and a proposal that was in between. At the moment, it's fair to say that we're negotiating around the proposal that's in between," hesaid.

"I can't characterise a figure across the board because it varies according to where you are in the structure."

Airservices spokesman Richard Dudley said the air navigation provider had been notified of the bargaining period, which takes effect a week after the application, but this did not necessarily mean industrial action.

"We're committed to continuing the negotiation process and remain committed to achieving a positive outcome for all of our staff, and our negotiating team is happy to meet with Civil Air anywhere and any time to ensure that outcome," Mr Dudley said.

"But we need to have the key issue of unlimited sick leave on the table for serious negotiation."