Air Traffic Control Staffing Crisis

Air traffic controllers and pilots have again hit out at Airservices Australia's inability to man towers as a shortage of air traffic controllers continues to bite.

The staff shortage struck again this week when Airservices was forced to close down its tower at Launceston all day on Tuesday because of a lack of staff.

The closure comes after similar problems in recent months in Canberra, Melbourne and Perth, as well as in regional areas ranging from Cairns to central Australia and western NSW. Airservices insists the closures are not a safety problem and says it has a strategy in place that should see short-term problems fixed by the end of the year.

But unions representing pilots and air traffic controllers have yet to be convinced. Australian and International Pilots Association general manager director Peter Somerville said the shortages should not be happening in a country like Australia. "Airspace closures should not be happening in a first world country, so obviously Airservices has a major problem," Mr Somerville said.

Air traffic control union Civil Air said the shortage was reaching a crisis point. While it was not in meltdown yet, it was not far off it, said Civil Air executive secretary Peter McGuane.

"It's pretty bad," he said. "There's an acknowledged shortfall by Airservices somewhere between 22 and an additional 16, depending on how you define them. "We think it's a bit more than that and it's got the potential to go a bit higher."

The problem prompted air traffic control union Civil Air to write a scathing letter to Airservices last year that claimed it was leaving airspace uncontrolled on "an almost daily basis". Civil Air also accused Airservices of attempting to hide the problem from regulatory and safety organisations, a claim the air traffic controller has denied.

The situation again came to a head in Perth last month when Qantas cancelled flights to Perth after the air navigation organisation was unable to man the tower for three hours.

Airservices blamed the lapse on sickness and said pilots had to self-monitor the air space during this time.

However, Qantas chief pilot Captain Chris Manning said that the airline had deemed it unsafe to operate in the area because downgrading of controlled air space would affect "critical ascent and descent profiles".

Civil Air's Mr McGuane said the problem was because of poor planning by Airservices and a high demand for controllers around the world. He said Airservices was already unable to replace air traffic controllers who fell sick, and the situation could get worse if more were attracted overseas.

"A lot of people have applications for positions overseas, and if they're successful in those, we think those numbers could blow out vastly and we would then be in a meltdown situation," Mr McGuane said.

He said the knock-on effect of the recent Perth closure had affected 25 aircraft, including one plane transporting government ministers to the West Australian capital for a cabinet meeting.

"Since then other places have closed intermittently," Mr McGuane said. "Melbourne tower has closed a couple of times, Launceston has been on and off for short periods due to staff shortages."

In addition to the safety issues, airlines are increasingly angry that air traffic control delays are combining with bad weather and other factors to significantly degrade on-time performance. November on-time performance figures of 79.9 per cent for departures and 77.4 per cent for arrivals were well below the long-term average, with December and January figures also expected to be down.

One airline has estimated that delays due to air traffic control problems have risen by almost a third.

Airservices concedes that poor planning prior to the arrival of the current management contributed to the issues, and notes that the problem has been exacerbated by the global shortage of controllers.

Airservices spokesman Terry O'Connor said the air navigation provider needed 894 people on consoles directing traffic and a further 106 for specialist support roles.

Mr O'Connor said Airservices was currently short 22 people on consoles and 14 in the support roles. He said Airservices had put a lot of effort into expanding its Melbourne training facility and had increased the number of courses. But he noted that it took 45 weeks to complete the course and graduates were under supervision for another three or four years.

Airservices was also hiring from overseas, but these recruits also needed additional training. It was trying to entice back Australians working overseas and attempting to attract military controllers.

Mr O'Connor said that provided Airservices was not raided by overseas operators, it expected to have filled the shortage by the end of the year.

"All up, we expect to put 98 people through this year and by the end of this calendar year, barring unforeseen circumstances, from those 22 shortages we expect to have a surplus of five," he said. "But we're maintaining that higher training regime and tempo in 2009 as well because we know we have some people coming up for retirement etc."

Mr O'Connor said the other problem for Airservices was that the shortages applied to certain sectors. He said Airservices had been hit by a bad flu season last year, and had some people who had long-term illnesses.

"If they're not well enough or they're fatigued, we don't want them on a console -- it's safer not to have them," he said.

In the case of Launceston, Mr O'Connor said one of seven staff based there was on long-term medical leave and two others had been suffering from poor health. (Civil Air Note: Launceston has only 5 controllers total)

This had affected rosters and meant that sometimes in the past two months no one had been available to fill in when a colleague was sick.

"What happens effectively then is it goes to class G (airspace) and the same procedures operate as within Port Macquarie, Ballina or Bundaberg, for example," Mr O'Connor said.