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

One for Airservices Australia Management

A man is flying in a hot air balloon and realizes he is lost. He reduces height and spots a man down below. He lowers the balloon further and shouts: "Excuse me, can you help me? I promised my friend I would meet him half an hour ago, but I don't know where I am."

The man below says: "Yes. You are in a hot air balloon, hovering approximately 30 feet above this field. You are between 40 and 42 degrees N. latitude, and between 58 and 60 degrees W. longitude."

"You must be an ATC," says the balloonist.

"I am," replies the man. "How did you know?"

"Well," says the balloonist, "everything you have told me is technically correct, but I have no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I am still lost.

"The man below says, "You must be a manager."

"I am," replies the balloonist, "but how did you know?"

"Well," says the man, "you don't know where you are, or where you are going. You have made a promise which you have no idea how to keep, and you expect me to solve your problem. The fact is you are in the exact same position you were in before we met, but now it is somehow my fault."

More Air Traffic Controllers Needed

The Sydney Morning Herald released an article over the weekend, highlighting the shortage of Air Traffic Controllers in Australia. This is just one of a hand full of articles as well as an interview on ABC radio from Dick Smith, who I am surprised to say went in to bat for ATC.

A proposal put to Airservices Australia to attract and retain more air traffic controllers to airports has been met with derision, the union representing controllers says.

The claims come after airspace to the northwest of Canberra was unwatched for a total of two hours on Sunday night, causing extra work for pilots and affecting 17 flights between Melbourne and Sydney.

The Civil Air Operations Officers' Association of Australia, known as Civil Air, says controllers are increasingly frustrated by a shortage of staff.

"They're continually being asked to perform additional duty above and beyond their normal hours," Civil Air Executive Secretary Peter McGuane told AAP.

"Basically, they're working a 35 hour week and are being constantly asked to come back for, in some circumstances, multiple shifts to replace other colleagues who may be taken ill.

"Obviously that has a debilitating effect over time in terms of their fatigue levels and their constant requests to come back to work to cover unplanned absences."

Authorities were only really becoming aware of the problem as a result of inadequate workforce planning several years ago, he said.

"There simply aren't enough controllers to guarantee provision of continuous services because the system relies on constant performance of overtime and additional duty," he said.

"So in circumstances where people are unable to perform that emergency duty, the airspace has to revert to information broadcast procedures.

"The management of Airservices (then) refused to recognise this problem and failed to put in place measures to address both the age profile and the early retirement of people and now, additionally and increasingly, the fact that there are very lucrative conditions being offered overseas."

Airservices Australia had since increased the trainee uptake, which the union had welcomed, he said.

"But that's going to take some time to produce a finished product because it takes anywhere between 18 months and two years to have controllers fully weighted and able to perform their operational functions.

"We've put a proposal to the employer in order to attract and retain air traffic controllers both at the intake level and those that are currently in the workforce and in large part that's met with derision.

"So the government needs to intervene and direct Airservices that they should undertake genuine negotiations with Civil Air to solve this attraction and retention problem."