Source: The Australian (15 July 2008)
By: Cameron Stewart - Associate Editor

LAST week, as a dwindling number of air traffic controllers struggled to keep pace with the number of aeroplanes in the sky, one controller lost his cool.

"Who's off to jail then?" he fumed in an online forum for air traffic controllers and pilots. "Imagine our worst nightmare," he wrote. "TIBA (uncontrolled) airspace somewhere in Australia. sy_twr3.jpgTwo aircraft collide, multiple fatalities. World headlines. The pilots had insufficient briefing on service levels and procedures. In the ensuring investigation, who would the authorities recommend be indicted on formal charges (for) reckless abandonment of responsibilities?"

It was a good question in the present climate, for there are few precedents in this country for what is going on in Australian skies.

A shortage of air traffic controllers is forcing large chunks of the skies to be unmanned for hours on end, meaning there is no air traffic controller to monitor the passage of fully-laden jumbo jets criss-crossing this airspace.

The federal Government's figures show that large sectors of Australian airspace were closed on 24 occasions in June, a record level and a one-third increase on May. What's more, passengers are told nothing. They do not know when they board a plane whether they are flying through uncontrolled airspace or what risks they face.

How dangerous this practice is depends on who you speak to. Air traffic controllers are unhappy, warning that this is a disaster waiting to happen.

Air safety regulator the Civil Aviation Safety Authority disagrees, maintaining that uncontrolled airspace - while not desirable - does not pose an unacceptable risk to aircraft and passengers.

Qantas has signalled its view by instructing its pilots to avoid flying through uncontrolled airspace wherever possible. It has cancelled, delayed and diverted flights as a result of the increasing number of airspace closures in recent months.

So how did such a disturbing situation arise in a country with a well-resourced and advanced aviation industry?

The origins of the problem can be traced to the early 2000s when air traffic control manager Airservices Australia - a government-owned but airline industry-funded body - failed to plan for future air traffic control needs. This inexplicable management oversight was not noticed or felt for many years, but it has grave implications.

Airservices did not read the global trends of growing air traffic coupled with an international shortage of controllers. It did not lift recruitment when it should have and now - because of the long lead-time needed for training - it cannot solve the shortage.

Airservices chief executive Greg Russell admitted his organisation's liability in a private letter written to an airline in February and obtained by The Australian.

"When I arrived in 2005 one of the first requests was to see the Airservices workforce plan to see how the organisation intended to address future resource requirements," he wrote. "There was no such plan available."

Russell said little planning had been done to address recruitment and the fact that many of Australia's 900 controllers were nearing retirement.

"All of these issues were uncovered against a backdrop of a worldwide shortage of air traffic controllers and increasing customer demands and growth," he wrote.

Airservices is belatedly trying to redress the shortage by more than doubling the number of recruits to between 80 and 100 a year. This will solve the problem in several years, but offers no immediate solution. The result, say air traffic controllers, is that the existing workforce is being overworked and saddled with unrealistic demands.

"Staff shortages abound," says Robert Mason, head of the air traffic control union Civil Air, which claims there is a 10 per cent shortfall of about 80 controllers in Australia.

He says controllers are often asked to come in on days off and and while on leave to cover shortages and avoid airspace closures.

"Simple things like breaks to go to the toilet or give tired eyes a break from staring at consoles or airborne traffic are willingly forgone to minimise disruptions to service," Mason says.

But the Government does not believe that controllers are as being as pure and selfless as Civil Air would like people to believe. Government sources believe Civil Air is exploiting staff shortages and exaggerating safety risks in order to win steep rises in pay and conditions. They maintain that there is a shortfall of only 17 controllers, not 80.

Civil Air is pushing for pay rises of between 32 and 63 per cent over three years when its collective agreement with Airservices expires at the end of the year. The move would have senior air traffic controllers earning $175,000 a year from January.

Civil Air says this will bring Australia more into line with the conditions enjoyed by controllers overseas.

While Airservices will not comment on the wages push, the timing could not be worse for airlines that face record fuel prices and for a Government seeking to contain inflation.

Civil Air is unrepentant about its claim, saying it is the only way to attract and retain air traffic controllers in the future.

But the pay claim means that Airservices and the Government are viewing controllers' safety complaints through the prism of industrial politics. In this volatile climate there is a risk that authorities will downplay the warnings of air traffic controllers regardless of how credible these warnings are.

Former CASA chairman Dick Smith says air traffic controllers are right to warn about the danger of passenger jets flying through uncontrolled airspace, describing the practice as "incredibly unsafe".

"I find it amazing it could ever be allowed to happen," Smith says. "In other countries, they would not allow aircraft to fly in that airspace."

Last week The Australian revealed warnings from controllers that many foreign pilots do not understand the correct collision avoidance procedures in uncontrolled airspace.

When flying through uncontrolled airspace, pilots must rely on themselves and other pilots to avoid collisions by keeping track of developments on a common frequency.

Without a controller watching over them, the potential for human error is magnified, especially because pilots are not trained to separate aircraft. Some controllers say they have seen examples of aircraft in uncontrolled airspace failing to broadcast their presence and their movements on the correct frequencies.

One controller, writing on an online industry forum said: "It quickly became apparent that none of the international crews - Malaysian Airlines, Thai Airways, Singapore Airlines - understood the procedures."

Peter McGuane, executive director of Civil Air, says controllers often have to teach foreign pilots the safety procedures for uncontrolled airspace in mid-flight.

CASA initially dismissed the concerns revealed in The Australian, saying that the procedures for uncontrolled airspace are internationally mandated rules that all pilots are taught and are explained in flight manuals.

But what CASA did not say was that many foreign pilots have never before used these procedures because they do not have uncontrolled airspace in their countries.

Singapore Airlines hit back at the controller's claims about foreign pilots, implying that it bordered on racism.

"Our pilots are trained to the highest internationally recognised standards and suggestions that they would compromise safety in controlled or uncontrolled airspace, whereas pilots for Australian carriers would not, are both false and professionally offensive," the airline said.

The airline said the controller's claims were part of an Australian industrial dispute and that it did not want to become involved.

Yet several days after The Australian's story appeared, CASA said it would start quizzing foreign pilots about their knowledge of the procedures for flying through uncontrolled airspace.

CASA also said it would write to foreign airlines pointing out that there was uncontrolled airspace in Australia and ask them to refresh their knowledge of the procedures.

These actions by CASA contradicted its initial claims that there was nothing to worry about. It made the regulator appear to be reactive on a safety issue that affects all Australians who fly.

Civil Air has now called for a sweeping review of the safety of passenger jets flying through uncontrolled airspace.

But CASA says that to ban jets from uncontrolled airspace would raise other potential risks, such as overcrowding in other airspace sectors, or forcing planes to take long detours. If planes were forced to take long detours this would add significantly to airline fuel and maintenance costs and would push air fares higher.

The costs and inconvenience would be substantial. Yet they would be nothing compared to the horrendous cost of a midair collision.

For now, CASA maintains that the risks of such a collision are too small to support the dramatic step of closing all uncontrolled airspace.

"CASA has already done careful risk analysis and we believe this is the best way to proceed while acknowledging it would be far more preferable to have (controllers) all the time," CASA spokesman Peter Gibson says.

Controllers say this is not good enough and that not all pilots are knowledgable enough to send their jets hurtling safely through uncontrolled airspace.

"There is a serious deficiency in what advice-briefing these crews are receiving," writes one controller in an online forum. "Personally I don't think the NOTAMS (the instructions given to pilots about flying through uncontrolled airspace) spell out exactly what they are getting themselves and the 300 trusting souls down the back of each of these flights into.

"This is in no way a reflection or comment on my fellow controllers: it is an indictment on our management for letting things get this bad, and on CASA for not ensuring that international crews operating in to this airspace are adequately operationally prepared."

Despite the warnings from air traffic controllers, CASA says there have so far been no confirmed close calls between aircraft in uncontrolled airspace.

Smith says this is no defence for what he believes is an inherently unsafe practice. "As people fly across Australia they think there is an air traffic controller instructing their pilot, telling them how to keep clear of other planes, but often there is not," he says.

"Pilots are not air traffic controllers; they don't have the training to work out where they are. It is impossible to believe this is really happening in this country."

Cameron Stewart is associate editor of The Australian.