Source: ninemsn - by Erin Tennant
Passenger planes carrying thousands of people were flying without proper ground-based supervision for a total of seven days last year, as authorities struggle to fill a shortage in air traffic controllers.

Airservices Australia, the government-owned body responsible for managing air traffic, recorded 53 separate incidents in 2007 — together lasting 166.5 hours — where designated sectors of airspace were unsupervised, according to documents obtained by ninemsn under the Freedom of Information Act.

Each of these incidents meant the pilots of passenger jets were left to organise their own safe separation from other jets — a situation which slightly increases the risk of an accident.

"The obvious safety threat is the chance of a collision between two aircraft," Civil Air executive secretary Peter McGuane said.

The far more common impact of uncontrolled air are heavy flight delays in cases where pilots find alternative flight routes or wait for the return of controlled airspace.

It can also delay the flow of arrivals and departures at major airports.

This happened at Perth Airport from 11pm-2am on January 18 when Airservices Australia was unable to find any air traffic controllers to staff the airport's terminal control space — a large donut of air that stretches from about 15km to 65km outside the airport terminal — to sequence outbound and inbound planes.

The three-hour closure of airspace caused delays to about 25 scheduled flights, with Qantas citing the safety of passengers in refusing to land or take-off any of its aircraft.

Equipment or technology failure, such as loss of radar coverage, is sometimes blamed for uncontrolled airspace, but even Airservices Australia concedes it is struggling mainly due to a lack of air traffic controllers.
"We have had a number of service interruptions, particularly over the last six to 12 months," Jason Harfield told a Senate estimates committee in February.

According to the documents obtained by ninemsn, Airservices Australia is short 25 operational air traffic controllers as at the end of April.

Mr McGuane said the workforce shortage presented little wriggle room when staff called in sick or were unavailable due to fatigue.

"When air traffic controllers can't be replaced for reasons of illness or unavailability, sufficient staff then cannot be brought in to fill those positions, which is why those airspaces are closed," the Civil Air union secretary said.

Every time airspace is uncontrolled, pilots must broadcast their position and route while attempting to monitor the same for other planes. A normal airline jet is fitted with computerised systems that prevent it from smashing into other planes, but some privately own aircraft do not, Mr McGuane said. He said the staffing crisis was further threatened by a large number of air traffic controllers due to retire in coming years as well as the lure among younger staff of better pay and working conditions in wealthy Middle Eastern nations.

Airservices Australia blames the industry's tight labour market for the staffing shortage and said it was putting in place a "detailed workforce plan to address previous inadequacies in long-term human resource planning".
"This has included international recruitment which has resulted in [20.5 full-time equivalent] air traffic controllers now coming on line," a spokeswoman said.

She said Airservices expects to increase its intake of new trainees by about 50 percent over the next 12 months.

The government-owned body, which made $106.7 million in after-tax profit at the end of June 2007, has also just started a new round of wage negotiations for air traffic controllers, she said.