Media Release - A response to Airservices Australia

Press Release - July 29 2008

A response to Airservices Australia

Recent allegations by Airservices CEO Greg Russell that controllers are deliberately closing airspace are baseless and insulting to the professional Air Traffic Controllers of Australia.

Air Traffic Control is the business of providing safe passage of aircraft throughout the airspace administered on behalf of the Australian people. Civil Air and its members take this responsibility extremely seriously and despite years of staffing reductions, corporate and operational restructures, Australian ATCs have continued to provide a service that on world standards is second to none. Recent analysis shows Australian controllers to be amongst the most productive in the world.

The increasing rate of closures and service reductions is symptomatic of a system slowing failing despite the efforts of those that actually provide the services. Controllers and support staff are constantly required to bridge gaps in coverage by way of overtime or handling multiple pieces of airspace alone where risk modelling has already determined a need for 2 or more controllers to manage the workload.

The onset of the current ATC malaise corresponds closely with the latest management restructure in which over 100 operational ATC Supervisors were appointed as front line managers commencing March 2007. Significantly, these supervisors were previously part of the coverage of ATC rosters, day in day out helping with the workload of providing an ATC service. Since the restructure the vast majority of these new managers have been limited to purely supervisory tasks, no longer licensed to provide air traffic control at the workface. The direct impact of this has been a reduction of available ATCs to cover roster shortfalls.

In parallel with the management restructure Airservices, the government owned business responsible for delivery of ATC, commenced a restructure of airspace and the controllers that operate it. This requires virtually every controller in major centres to retrain for new airspace and procedures. Quite apart from the obvious additional workload associated with the actual training the effect is to vastly reduce the flexibility of rosters as controllers drop qualifications in one area to train for those in another.

Airservices currently quotes a staffing shortfall of 17 controllers plus another 14 in critical operational support positions. They have also publicly admitted to long term systemic reliance on overtime to keep the system afloat. There is no provision for staff absence (sick leave or other) except by way of utilising overtime. Airservices has identified a requirement to carry staff at 110% of minimum operational requirement simply to remain viable. This places the shortfall at approximately 100 staff.

Despite figures quoted it appears that the average sick leave per full time employee in the public sector is between 8 and 9 days per annum (as at 2006). The figure for ATCs is approximately 11.5 as quoted internally by Airservices. This is for a workforce that provides shift working coverage 24 hours a day 365 days a year and is subject to stringent medical requirements and fitness for duty standards far above the public norm. ATC sick leave figures equate closely with those in other similar shift working environments such as nursing and policing. A controller who is not up to the legal standard is a potential danger to everyone and must stand themselves down from duty or face strict penalties defined in Civil Aviation Safety Regulations.

Air traffic controllers are provided with sick leave as required. This was provided by the employer as an exercise to reduce a corporate liability for accrued sick leave and was not a position that Airservices was tricked into. Indeed they initiated it. Controllers must provide a certificate for any sick leave exceeding 1 day and will require a full medical examination if absent for longer terms. Airservices' own figures show that shifts requiring coverage (for all reasons including sickness) are roughly stable and that, per controller, the take up of overtime is slightly increased.

Controllers do not want to be part of a failing system. They are proud of the service they provide and their ability to do it. That some are forced to seek employment overseas or retire early simply because they can no longer cope with a system that fails to support them and blames them for its shortcomings is symptomatic of how bad things have become. There simply are not enough controllers to keep the system running.

Robert Mason
President, Civil Air
July 27, 2008

Media enquiries should be directed to:
Robert Mason, President 0403 153 400; or
Peter McGuane, Executive Secretary 0412 538 336