Cameron Stewart | January 22, 2009

Article from:  The Australian

A PARALYSING strike grounding aircraft across the country is now more likely following the collapse of negotiations between air traffic controllers and their government employer.

The increasingly bitter dispute is spiralling out of control, with the air traffic controllers' union Civil Air this week calling on its members to approve industrial action.

Its dramatic call follows the failure on Tuesday to resolve an eight-month impasse in negotiations with the air traffic control employer Airservices over a new three-year deal on pay and conditions.

The negotiations come at a time when a shortage of air traffic controllers is already causing disruption to flights and is forcing some pilots to fly through uncontrolled airspace.

The prospect of industrial action has strengthened after the Australian Industrial Relations Commission on Tuesday approved a protected-action ballot for Civil Air members.

If a majority of union members vote in favour of industrial action when the ballot closes on February 11, then rolling stoppages and other forms of strike action could take place from February 21. Industrial action would close down the nation's airports for hours or days on end, causing havoc for travellers across the country and overseas.

Civil Air executive secretary Peter McGuane said yesterday the union was "vigorously trying to avoid this scenario".

In a note to members, he called on air traffic controllers to approve the option of industrial action as a way to "focus Airservices on a more reasonable position in bargaining".

The two parties will meet again on February 3 in what many see as the last chance for a resolution before a strike.

Airservices has proposed wage increases of 4 per cent a year for three years, but is demanding an end to a condition that grants unlimited sick leave to controllers.

Civil Air is calling for a wage increase of about 7 per cent a year for three years and has refused to give up unlimited sick leave, although it proposed a cap on one-day absences.

Civil Air says generous pay rises are essential to attract and retain controllers in the face of a worldwide shortage and an ageing workforce.

Airservices maintains its offer is "reasonable given developments across the workforce, current financial constraints and the state of the aviation industry".

"Airservices is of the view that the Civil Air executive does not want to resolve this matter on a reasonable basis and that the Civil Air executive believes that the threat of industrial action will elicit a better offer," ASA wrote to controllers this week.

"Airservices' board will not be changing their offer in response to any threats or actual industrial action. The only impact of industrial action will be to severely inconvenience the travelling public."

ASA accuses some controllers of running a covert industrial campaign by refusing to work overtime in the hope of strengthening their bargaining position on wages.

Civil Air denies this and says ASA's failure to recruit enough controllers in the past five years has led to excessive overtime demands, which have destroyed morale and compromised safety standards.

The Australian last year revealed fears by controllers that passenger jets were "flying blind" through uncontrolled airspace and that some foreign pilots did not know the correct collision-avoidance procedures.