The Australian
by Cameron Stewart, Associate Editor| July 26, 2008

AUSTRALIA is facing international pressure to address growing safety concerns about the practice of passenger jets flying through uncontrolled airspace.

The world's governing aviation body, the International Civil Aviation Organisation, has asked the federal Government to explain why large chunks of Australian skies are being left uncontrolled, forcing pilots to fend for themselves to avoid mid-air collisions.

The move comes as the world's largest pilots association yesterday slammed Australia for allowing a "third world" situation to develop in its skies because of a chronic shortage of air traffic controllers......

antas, Jetstar and Virgin Blue this week called for a review of safety procedures for flying through uncontrolled airspace, despite claims by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority that the practice is not unsafe.

ICAO has written to the Department of Transport, CASA and the air traffic control manager, Airservices Australia, to ask for an explanation of the situation. A spokesman for the Department of Transport said ICAO had asked "for a status report and information on contingency plans being used in Australia for situations involving disruptions to airspace".

He said the Government would respond to the request "confirming Australia's ongoing commitment to the relevant ICAO regulatory requirements".

Chronic mismanagement of the recruitment of air traffic controllers by the government-owned Airservices means there are now not enough controllers to monitor all Australian airspace properly. The Government believes controllers are contributing to the problem by calling in sick to highlight the shortage and help their forthcoming wage claim.

The result is that large chunks of airspace are being left uncontrolled for hours on end, leaving pilots to rely on ICAO-mandated contingency procedures to avoid collisions. These procedures rely on pilots monitoring the movements of other planes by visual sightings and by listening to a common frequency.

CASA says these procedures, while not perfect, do not pose an unacceptable risk; air traffic controllers disagree, describing them as a disaster waiting to happen. Their concerns were highlighted on July 12 when, as reported in The Australian, a US Lear jet came within 60 seconds of a possible collision with a Jetstar Airbus because of confusion about uncontrolled airspace near Canberra.

Yesterday, the world's largest pilots association broke its silence on the issue, saying uncontrolled airspace should not occur in a developed country like Australia.

Richard Woodward, vice president (technical) of the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations, which represents about 110,000 pilots worldwide, said: "We are disappointed that a first world aviation country like Australia has to resort to these procedures.

"While the procedures used are not inherently unsafe, they are intended for countries where there are less than ideal air traffic control systems.

"You would not expect to use it in a first-world country and so to have Australia behave like a third-world country in this respect is disappointing."

A spokesman from the ICAO did not return calls from The Weekend Australian.

Airservices has recently doubled its intake of air traffic control trainees to try to solve the shortage, but it will take several years before they are fully trained.

Airservices also recently recruited 25 controllers from overseas but the controllers' union, Civil Air, said it was still about 80 people short of what it needed. The airlines are furious about the situation, which has forced them to balance the safety aspects of flying through uncontrolled airspace against the extra costs of flying around uncontrolled sectors.