Journalist: Ben Sandilands
Date: 14 January 2009
Out of control: The air traffic staffing crisis
Some 16 months after airliners began to lose a reliable air traffic control system in Australia, the air safety regulator, CASA, has done nothing to enforce the rules about staffing levels.
This is despite Qantas putting messages on the departures monitors at major airports informing passengers that delays are "due to a shortage of air traffic controllers."
Or Qantas pilots, with company approval, informing passengers that, on safety grounds, it will not use air space in which it has no certainty of knowing the precise location of other airliners.
Or Virgin Blue demanding damages for the consequences of repeated breakdowns.
The Civil Aviation Safety Regulation 172.110, which has been in force for just over 10 years, says:
An air traffic services provider must have, at all times, enough suitably qualified and trained personnel to enable it to provide, in accordance with the standards set out in the manual of Standards and the standards set out or referred to in Annex 11, the air traffic services covered by its approval.
The Minister for Transport, Anthony Albanese, and AirServices Australia, claim that the problems of uncontrolled airspace are nothing but an industrial ploy by Civil Air, the union that represents only part of the controllers, to have them call in sick at critical times to assist their pay demands.
The real situation is worth noting at a time when AirServices Australia and the union are negotiating an agreement to replace the one that expired almost four weeks ago.
AirServices doesn't have enough controllers to man the terminals, regardless of whether they are members of a union or not; it doesn't have a credible or functioning training program to create new controllers; and it has a work force that is quitting in significant numbers for better pay and conditions in Eire, Dubai, Hong Kong and Germany.
But the Minister, and his safety regulator, appear to be willing to be misled, which might be explained in part by the retention of some air transport bureaucrats who presided over the decline in performance by CASA and AirServices of their obligations under the previous government.
When CASA was asked when it had initiated action against AirServices to require compliance with the rule, a spokesman replied:
Your questions infer that the interruptions in ATC have all been because of staff shortages. This has not necessarily been the cause of all the problems. Airservices can have the right number of controllers at a location but be subject to shortages caused by controllers not being available.
CASA has been closely monitoring Airservices to ensure safety is maintained. That will continue.
This is as credible as CASA claiming it is perfectly safe for airliners to talk to each other on a common radio frequency and "self separate" when no AirServices service is available.
The airlines are increasingly reluctant to risk their passengers, and their insurance cover, by a system that assumes every jet, including smaller turboprops and some private flights, have tuned in to the right frequency, are listening, are giving accurate information, or are keeping the correct distance from each other if sharing the same flight level or transiting to a lower or higher level.
It is mandated "Russian roulette" in the sky on the part of a CASA and the Minister, in contravention of the flight standards the rest of the world enforces in crowded skies like those along the east coast.
Controllers, union and non-union, say they are under pressure to compromise sick leave rules, which make it an offence for them to report for duty with inadequate rest breaks.
Many are complaining of being robbed of their family life, because they cannot get two consecutive days off, and are frequently called in at short notice when they are fatigued from previous extended shifts.
One says: "They can't man the system on a 24-hour basis any more with certainty unless they lock us in."
Or as others have claimed, even if the controllers and AirServices agree to a new pay deal tomorrow, nothing will save the system from chronic staffing shortages for years to come because of past mismanagement of resources.