Source: The Australian
Cameron Stewart | August 11, 2008

THE Civil Aviation Safety Authority will restrict the number of passenger jets flying through uncontrolled skies, contradicting the Government's claims that the practice is perfectly safe.

The move is the first tacit admission by authorities that the risk of a mid-air collision in uncontrolled airspace in unacceptably high and that something needs to be done.

CASA has called on the air traffic control manager of Airservices Australia to place new restrictions on airspace when there is no air traffic controller available to monitor that portion of sky.

The move follows a series of articles in The Australian that have disclosed the dangers of uncontrolled airspace, highlighting safety warnings from pilots, air traffic controllers and aviation experts.

A shortage of air traffic controllers has increasingly left large parts of Australian skies uncontrolled, forcing pilots to rely on other pilots to avoid mid-air collisions.

The government-owned ASA has said repeatedly that the practice of flying in uncontrolled airspace, using only radio and visual sightings, is safe. But CASA now wants ASA to declare all uncontrolled airspace a "temporary restricted area" -- meaning no plane can fly in or out of this airspace without approval. This gives authorities a way to limit the number of planes that enter uncontrolled airspace and separate them more precisely before they enter the uncontrolled zone.

It means pilots will still be flying blind but with fewer other aircraft in the vicinity and better spacing, reducing the chances of a mid-air collision.

However, the new system could cause delays to those aircraft which are not approved to fly through the uncontrolled zone, adding to costs and inconvenience to passengers.

"We have asked (ASA) to look at TRA as an alternative to (uncontrolled airspace) because it gives a greater ability to be aware of all the traffic in that airspace," said CASA spokesman Peter Gibson.

A spokesman for ASA, Richard Dudley, said the service agreed late last week to CASA's request for uncontrolled airspace in Australia to be designated as TRA.

CASA has been increasingly frustrated by the air safety implications arising from a shortage of air traffic controllers.

The shortage has come about through mismanagement by ASA, which has failed to recruit enough controllers to offset large numbers of retirements and poaching from overseas.

ASA accuses air traffic controllers of contributing to the problem by calling in sick and refusing to work extra shifts in an effort to highlight the shortage and help their forthcoming wage claim.

Last Friday, a massive area of airspace between Brisbane and Cairns was left uncontrolled between midnight and 5.30am after a controller called in sick.

According to an ASA "service interruption" report on the incident, six other controllers declined to cover the sick man's shift while four others were uncontactable.

ASA head Greg Russell has accused a small group of "renegade" controllers of leaving the skies uncontrolled to boost their industrial clout in looming wage negotiations.

But the air traffic control union, Civil Air, says ASA is looking to deflect blame for its own failings. "Airservices seems bent on shifting the blame to those who have been holding a failing system together, rather than accepting the consequences of its own mismanagement of human resources across an extended period of time," Civil Air president Robert Mason said.

The Sydney tower alone has lost four controllers through resignation or retirement in the past two weeks.