Safety rules ignored after planes in near-miss: union

Source: Sydney Morning Herald
Paul Bibby
August 27, 2008

STANDARD safety procedures were not followed after two aircraft had a near-miss over south-western Sydney this month because of staff shortages within Airservices Australia, an air traffic controller in Sydney and the controllers' union say.

An incident report written by Airservices Australia and obtained by the Herald shows that on the evening of Friday, August 1, a domestic passenger plane closed to within 2.3 nautical miles of another domestic plane, breaching the minimum separation distance of three nautical miles.

It happened during Sydney Airport's busiest period of the week for domestic passengers. An Air Link Airlines pilot slowed for heavy turbulence, and a Regional Express pilot on the same heading increased his speed.

Under air-traffic control guidelines, the two controllers responsible for that airspace should have been immediately stood aside while their manager investigated. But a controller from the Sydney terminal said the two staff were told to continue working, in part because the centre was already a man down and to stand them down would have resulted in big delays for passengers and a consequent loss of face for Airservices Australia.

"The established process for standing controllers down after an incident of that type was not followed," the controller, who did not wish to be named, said. "The consensus in the room was that expediency had taken precedence over the established procedure."

Airservices said it had responded in "an appropriate or safe manner" to the incident. "Both controllers were removed from from the console and discussed the matter with the traffic manager and the check and standardisation supervisor. It was assessed … that the controllers responded appropriately to correct the situation and the controllers therefore resumed normal duties."

However, the controller said his colleagues were not stood down and the one most responsible was permitted to finish another three shifts before action was taken. The Herald understands he was then stood down for two shifts and given counselling.

The incident follows revelations that Airservices Australia is experiencing a critical shortage of controllers, resulting in large sections of airspace being unmonitored almost every day, and delays across the network. The Sydney centre is believed to be at least 14 controllers short of full capacity.

"The staffing shortage is the root cause of these problems … whether it be closures of airspace or an inability to stand people down," said Peter McGuane, the executive secretary of the controllers' union, Civil Air.

"We can only assume that part of the reason why this decision was made was concern about airspace closing. The expectation is that people would be stood down while an investigation is undertaken. It's for safety reasons that these procedures are in place."

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