Minister urges end to controllers' pay row as airlines get nervous

Steve Creedy, Aviation writer | February 02, 2009

Article from:  The Australian

TRANSPORT Minister Anthony Albanese has urged air traffic controllers and Airservices Australia to resolve their long-running pay dispute as airlines become increasingly nervous about potentially crippling industrial action.

The air traffic controllers union, Civil Air, and Airservices Australia have postponed talks scheduled for tomorrow and airlines worried about costly flight disruptions are lobbying Mr Albanese.

Regional airlines are particularly concerned that industrial action would have a devastating impact on a sector of the industry already struggling because of the economic downturn.

Regional Aviation Association of Australia chief executive, Paul Tyrrell said member airlines were writing to Mr Albanese seeking a quick resolution to the dispute. Mr Tyrrell said the timing could not be worse, given the economic situation.

"We're not taking sides, we're not party to the details of the dispute and neither do we want to be," Mr Tyrrell said. "But my board has spoken to me and the unequivocal position is a timely resolution.

"These guys all get paid no matter how long this conflict goes on, our members don't and it hurts them."

Civil Air has been given permission to ballot its members on industrial action and will be in a position to start an industrial campaign towards the end of this month.

The action is unlikely to be a full-blown strike but could involve either rolling stoppages or an overtime ban. Either of those options have the potential to seriously disrupt air travel.

Major carriers have also expressed deep concerns about the dispute and have told The Australian they have been lobbied by Airservices to become a party to the dispute in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission.

But the airlines are reluctant to get directly involved and want Mr Albanese to act.

The Transport Minister yesterday stopped short of promising direct intervention but urged the parties to find a solution.

"I urge the parties to resolve the outstanding issues, particularly given the current global economic situation and the fact the aviation industry supports more than half a million Australian jobs," Mr Albanese said.

Civil Air executive secretary Peter McGuane said the meeting scheduled for tomorrow had been postponed and the parties were setting up a new date.

He said the major sticking point in a resolution remained sick leave but disagreements also remained about rostering.

Air traffic controllers want to retain unlimited sick leave, arguing they are on a 24-hour roster and have to meet higher health standards than other members of the community.

There has also been a disagreement on pay increases but both parties are understood to have been willing to negotiate on that matter and there has been some movement towards reaching a pay deal.

Airservices wants to limit sick leave to 15 days, saying this would bring it into line with other government organisations. Mr McGuane said the ballot, which was being conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission, was due to finish on February 11.

Assuming there was a strong endorsement of industrial action, he said the union would then be required to give seven working days' notice before it could begin.

He believed there would have to be some sort of outside intervention if the dispute were to be resolved.