The Courier Mail 

"GOOD MORNING. This is your captain speaking. Today we will be flying through uncontrolled airspace. To avoid a mid-air collision, the first officer and I will be monitoring a special radio frequency and as long as any pilot heading towards us does the same thing, we should be OK."

You won't hear announcements like this being made as you sit on the tarmac at Brisbane airport because, if you did, there'd be a stampede for the exits. If, however, you are a nervous flyer, read no further for, because of a chronic shortage of air traffic controllers, domestic and international airliners in Australia are now regularly flying through unsupervised airspace....

When this happens, pilots have to rely on TIBA – Traffic Information Broadcast by Aircraft or, more accurately DIYATC – Do It Yourself Air Traffic Control. We presume, you and I, as we buckle our seat belts, adjust our seat backs upright and half-listen to the familiar safety demonstration, that after we take off our progress is monitored by the ever-present and watchful eye of the guardian angel known as air traffic control. We've seen it in the movies, men in open-necked shirts perched in their control tower eyries, staring into radar screens and speaking in staccato bursts to pilots as they guide 300 trusting souls from A to B.

They're still there but there are not enough of them, creating a situation former chairman of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority Dick Smith has described as "incredibly unsafe".

According to the controllers' union, Civil Air, the incidence of unsupervised airspace – pilots telling each other where they are and hoping to God everyone knows the TIBA rules – rose by 63 per cent in June.

CASA's head Bruce Byron disputes this figure but has been forced to concede that "what we may have is some circumstances where TIBA might be declared for maybe a 45 minute or two-hour period".

A check of the Civil Air website shows that on July 15, airspace in southeast Queensland from 30 nautical miles north of Brisbane to 70 nautical miles north of Rockhampton on the main Brisbane-Cairns air route was unsupervised for eight hours.

On July 16, a northern New South Wales sector on the heavily trafficked Brisbane-Sydney route suffered the same fate for five hours. The same site shows that in June, there were 98 closures and service reductions declared in Australian airspace. As of last Monday, there had been 56 this month.

In August last year there were none, in September four, and October two.

Do the simple mathematics and the conclusion is obvious – the air traffic control system is breaking down, devolving to a situation which in some reports controllers have described as "a disaster waiting to happen".

This situation is exacerbated by the fact that Australia is one of the few developed countries in the world to have unsupervised airspace.

This means that no matter how professional and well trained they may be, overseas pilots commanding international flights entering and leaving Australia are flying in an unfamiliar environment when air traffic control is suddenly suspended and they have to switch to TIBA.

Mr Smith has said pilots are not air traffic controllers and are not trained to work out their position in relation to other aircraft. "In other countries, they would not allow aircraft to fly in that airspace," he said.

The body that manages air traffic controllers is Airservices Australia, owned by the Government but funded by the airline industry, and it is this body which has so catastrophically failed to see a looming, global shortage of controllers. Put simply, in a scandalous abandonment of its responsibility to ensure the adequacy of the air traffic control network, it did nothing.

Equally, no one in the then Howard government appeared to know or particularly care. Civil Air says there is presently a shortfall of 80 controllers around Australia and many of the 900 controllers are nearing retirement.

Airservices now is desperately playing catch-up and doubling its recruitment program but this will not put extra controllers in towers for several years.

Behind this frightening scenario is the controllers' demand for significant pay increases but the wage dispute is not the issue.

The issue is that Australian airline passengers are boarding domestic and international aircraft sublimely unaware that their lives may be dependent on a Third World system of air traffic control.

Australia has an enviable safety record in civil aviation but the Government – and ultimately the responsibility lies with the Government – is playing Russian roulette with the lives of Australian air travellers.

One miscalculation, one misunderstood radio message, one garbled transmission and it will all end in flames and tears. Watch then, as politicians from both sides of the political spectrum run for cover.

Every day, they spin the chamber in the gun that passes for our air traffic control system.

It's only a matter of time before the hammer falls on a live round.