05 June 2008
Senator Julian McGauran
CANBERRA ACT 2600
Dear Senator McGauran,
*Re: Australian Air Traffic Controllers*
I refer to statements made by you in the Senate Estimates Committee on
Wednesday 28 May 2008, specifically regarding Australian civilian air
One line of questioning of Greg Russell, the Chief Executive Officer of
Airservices Australia, concerned short staffing and the impact of
absenteeism on the capacity of the organisation to provide a safe air
navigation service. In this context it is worthwhile to provide you with
some background to the situation.
Firstly, there is a global shortage of air traffic controllers*.
* A recent Background Paper by the International Federation of Air Traffic
Controllers’ Associations (IFATCA) states that “IFATCA firmly believes
that there is worldwide shortage of Air Traffic Controllers (ATCOs). ...
We believe this shortage to be in the magnitude of 3000 ATCOs worldwide”.
In Australia, projections of staffing need and training requirements for air
traffic controllers has not been adequately managed over the past six years.
Therefore, the situation that confronts us is that rosters are running on a
minimal number of staff with a considerable time lag in replacing departing
controllers. Compounding this problem, air traffic controllers are being
lured by better wages and conditions offered in other countries,
particularly in the Middle East. Also, consistent with the age profile
issues affecting most Australian industries, we are witnessing a significant
number of departures based upon age retirement.
A corollary of a shift-working environment running on minimum to below
minimum staffing is that employees are maintaining the air navigation
service through performance of additional hours. The CEO, Greg Russell,
acknowledged this in Senate Estimates. As you may appreciate, the added
physical burden of working extra hours for shift workers results in a higher
susceptibility to illness and fatigue.
Air traffic controllers, like pilots, hold a licence the requirements of
which are detailed in the *Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998*. I draw
your attention to section 67.270 ‘Offence doing act while efficiency
“(1) This regulation applies in relation to a licence of any of the
(a) flight crew licence;
(b) special pilot licence;
(c) flight radio telephone licence;
(d) air traffic controller licence
(2) The holder of the licence must not do an act authorised by the licence
if at the time;
(a) he or she knows that he or she has a medically significant condition; and
(b) the condition has the result that his or her ability to do the act is
Air traffic controllers, like pilots, cannot legally perform the duties of
their licence whilst “impaired”. It is because of the restriction on their
ability to work whilst ill that these employees have access to sick leave as
required. This provision has been in existence in this workplace since the
1992 Air Traffic Control Enterprise Agreement. The provision is not the
cause of absenteeism. It is the staffing situation and the excessive and
physical burden that it imposes on employees that has created this current
To be plain, our Association which represents over 90% of civilian air
traffic controllers, found your remarks about “rorting” sick leave to be
I also take particular issue with the following statements that you made,
“What is your relationship with the union? You are to have to get down and dirty
with them and say, ‘We can’t have this rorting going on and unlimited sick
leave’. They are taking advantage of it. We have a case. On 4 April in
Sydney half the air traffic controllers rang in sick.**”....sooner or later
you are going to have to get down and dirty and have a fight. You watch
them; they will all walk out because they do not want to lose this lurk. But
you are going to have to face it sooner or later. If the government has any
backbone, they will support”.
**Your comments that “on 4 April in Sydney half the air traffic controllers
called in sick” demonstrates a breathtaking misrepresentation of the facts.
Sydney Tower and the Terminal Control Unit have in excess of eighty
operational ATC staff. On 4 April three controllers in the TCU reported sick
with one of those offering to perform non operational duty.
We appreciate that you have sought a breakdown by location of how many days
are lost through sick leave. We have written to Airservices as recently as
last week asking for the same information. We have also asked for
information relating to the usage of additional hours at these locations. It
is our understanding that the absenteeism figures have risen at the same
time as additional duty requirements has increased. You seem intent on
pursuing an agenda that relates to ‘rorting’. As you did not seem properly
briefed on the licence requirements of these employees perhaps the
entitlement is unusual, however, in view of this legal issue, the need for
entitlement is self evident.
The use of sick leave as required is a common employment condition across a
range of industries. Your statement to the contrary demonstrates both
ignorance and a lack of research of the subject matter.
In Senate Estimates you alleged that absenteeism is a “union problem”. It is
not, it is a symptom of a staffing crisis. On behalf of the Association, I
suggest that your inflammatory rhetoric is risible. The public is entitled
to expect that individuals who hold office in this country have a better
grasp on the facts than you have demonstrated.
Your suggestion that this Association would take strike action because there
is a Labor Government in power contradicts my understanding of the
legislative agenda proposed by the current Government which is that the
provisions that relate to protected industrial action will remain unchanged.
On this basis, any decisions made about protected industrial action would be
the same as they were under the previous Howard Government.
In future, perhaps you should take the time to establish the factual
situation before making ill informed politically motivated statements. We
would be happy to assist in raising your level of understanding in order
that you may properly acquit your responsibilities as a member of the Senate