Air traffic controllers stretched to breaking point: union

By Donna Field
Source: ABC News Online

Audio: Staff shortages see pilots flying blind (The World Today)

Audio: Former CASA chairman Dick Smith speaks about some planes flying without air traffic control guidance (ABC News)

Over the weekend, pilots in parts of Queensland and northern New South Wales were almost flying blind.

737lineup.jpgThey were without air traffic control guidance from Brisbane because too many staff had called in sick.

Qantas cancels flights in such circumstances. But the union representing air traffic controllers says even major metropolitan airports will face similar problems because there are not enough staff members.

Airservices Australia is the government-owned corporation that provides air traffic control across the country.

Over the weekend just five sick staff members was all it took to throw the organisation into chaos.

When replacement controllers could not be found, the company had to stop offering its services across southern Queensland, northern New South Wales and Cape York.

More than 40 flights were affected and some were cancelled, but others chose to continue flying.

Airservices Australia refused to agree to an interview on Monday morning, but a spokesman said safety was still paramount and the company was still monitoring and observing planes - it just could not communicate with them.

The Australian Federation of Air Pilots (AFAP) says under such circumstances pilots become responsible for their position and broadcast to other aircraft in what is called self separation.

Lawrie Cox is the federation's manager of Industrial Relations, and he says the self separation system is a last resort measure.

"The airline companies have to have an individual policy on that," he said.

"I know at least one company that is not keen on it, but we're in a situation where that's the nature of the industry at the moment because the air traffic control, Airservices Australia, just doesn't have the people to replace people when they get sick."

'Chronic shortages'


He says while there is always a risk of an accident happening, when there is no communication from the air traffic control towers the risk is much higher.

The executive secretary of the controllers' union, Peterdepboard.jpg McGuane, says there is a chronic shortage of controllers across the world and as part of current enterprise bargaining negotiations with Airservices Australia, higher pay is on the agenda.

Mr McGuane has defended the air traffic controllers who could not come in to work on the weekend when their colleagues called in sick.

There have been some suggestions that their failure to arrive was related to an industrial campaign.

"There would be a variety of reasons for that," Mr McGuane said, referring to the lack of replacements.

"Perhaps they would have already worked to the limit, they might already have worked overtime during that roster cycle, they might have other commitments, or they simply might be unwilling to continue to work overtime constantly to keep the system running."

Mr McGuane says it is not just small airlines and regional areas that are affected. He says some of the busiest air routes like Melbourne and Sydney have operated without air traffic control.

"It's common within Australia; it's not common internationally," he said.

"It's occurring with some regularity in Australia due to the constant reliance on overtime and the lack of staff planning that's occurred over the past four to five years.

"We had continually warned the employer that they were facing critical staff shortages... with people being attracted to positions overseas. And those warnings were ignored."