The Fragrant Harbour

Today’s blog comes to you from downtown Kowloon. I am in Hong Kong to attend the 25th annual Asia Pacific Regional meeting of IFATCA. Although I’m away for the week the wheel keeps turning in Australia with divisional meetings being run across the country to discuss the current offer on the table from Airservices Australia. Ian (Noddy) Stansfield is acting President in my absence and will, as always, do an excellent job on your behalf.

I have no wish to discuss the offer here and pre-empt any outcomes of the meetings other than to repeat my concern that the first offer did not arrive on the table until 60 days prior to expiry of the current agreement. At that point we had officially been in negotiation for 6 months and had 11 meetings prior. I encourage you to read it carefully, although it is short on detail. Please consider your position and (if you haven’t already done so) communicate your clear direction to your delegate. If you are unable to attend please send your proxy with someone who can. The directions from these divisional meetings will directly affect the subsequent negotiations. The negotiation team continues to work tirelessly on your behalf but they must be (and be seen to be) representative of your collective wishes.

As part of the process for the meeting here in Hong Kong I have prepared a report from Australia. I looked very carefully at that presented by Mike Haines in Kuala Lumpur last year and unfortunately note that there is little to indentify as significant improvement. I will post my speech after presentation to the conference in the members forums for your perusal. You will note some material common from previous blogs. In the best political style I have shamelessly stolen material. In my defence at least I only plagiarised myself.

As I worked through the report I could not help but notice how much of an impact the staffing problems have had over a long period of time. Not just rosters and airspace closures. Not just the reliance on institutional overtime. Opportunities missed and balls dropped are regular observations wherever you look in Airservices. Could SDE have worked? We all feel that there was no operational benefit in it but we’ll never know. The project was, in my opinion, doomed from the outset simply because we couldn’t staff it for an orderly transition. Even the ALM process never had a real chance of achieving the purported aims of the process. There simply are not adequate resources to allow ALMs to achieve what they’re supposed to. It doesn’t matter that we may think there’s a better way to do things, the model (requisite organisations) did not match the reality of resources in the system.

How about technical matters? Look at version 12 and 13. Even software updates before these have been severely hamstrung by the inability to apply resources where they’re required. Rigorous testing prior to acceptance and rollout. Remember the version 51 disaster? Version 12 was originally supposed to be delivered in 2006 with Version 13 in 2007. What about the development of FPCF? Despite years of excellent work this is still not delivered. Whilst there are undoubtedly many issues to be resolved in such complex technical projects as significant software changes, organisationally Airservices doesn’t seem to be equipped to achieve the amount of change required simply to keep up with the modern aviation environment. This applies not only to ATC resources but almost every part of the equation is affected. Training was gutted, technical support is withering on the vine. The techs age profile is significantly worse than that of ATC and we think that we’re facing a crisis.

How about refresher training? Do you remember the last training you did that wasn’t on line during a break? For most it will be a challenge. In Senate Estimates transcripts we read that controllers receive 8 days refresher training per annum. I challenge anyone to support this position with evidence. It simply isn’t happening. I do more on line training than most. Mainly this is as an adjunct to the time I occasionally spend as a fill in supervisor but does it have a real effect on my hands on skills?

So what is going right? We are moving more traffic per controller than almost anywhere in the world and the rate is improving with time. You are amongst the most productive ATCs and support staff globally. FDCs, SSOs, Training Specialists, Ops Support and the many other areas required to make it all happen are all doing more with less and despite all this we continue delivering a professional service to industry. Like it or not that professionalism includes airspace closures or delays when the system can’t safely support continued uninterrupted service.

Airservices will realise, or someone will make them realise that the collapse of ATC in Australia is not good for our nation. In a country as big as ours we must make it work. It’s actually a bigger problem than that of Civil Air vs Airservices. The country needs safe, reliable ATC. If Airservices can’t make it work there are commercial entities out there willing to give it a try.

No doubt some have had enough and will vote with their feet. I readily understand this position. Civil Air is focussed on getting through the CA negotiations with a position that attracts new staff, retains existing staff, and sets us up for the recovery of a failing system. I believe that there is real commitment amongst our members to try and improve the system long term. I keep coming back to the statement made by one of our (now) associate members, “Robbie, enjoy every day at Airservices. This is the best it’s ever going to be.” We must turn the corner and aim at a better future. If we hang together we can make this work in spite of Airservices.

Robert Mason
President, Civil Air
6 November, 2008