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Air traffic control interrupted 26 times during Christmas period

There were 26 periods during the last fortnight when air traffic services across the country were interrupted amid an ongoing row over staffing at provider Airservices Australia.

The Australian Financial Review reports the most recent stoppages on Tuesday morning, spanning an hour, were to “accommodate staff breaks”, while there was a total of 334 shutdowns over the past year.

Critics have claimed the breaks in service lead to delays, cancellations, and put safety at risk – a claim Airservices has consistently denied.

Last year, Airservices Australia argued it had 100 more air traffic controllers than it required to operate Australia’s network. It said the shutdowns were a result of a “short-term” and “unplanned” leave of controllers.

However, both air traffic control union Civil Air and the Australian Federation of Air Pilots (AFAP) insisted there is a lack of staff.

In a new statement, Airservices said rosters were tight in some areas, with staff “currently unavailable for operational duties”.

Airservices added it had measures in place “to ensure our safe, secure, efficient and environmentally responsible services to the aviation industry” during the busy Christmas holiday period and into 2024.

“Safety is our highest priority as we continue to efficiently service airlines, airports and the travelling public amid peak air traffic periods to keep Australia moving,” it said.

“Airservices is enhancing its service resilience by recruiting and training more than 100 new air traffic controllers (ATCs) nationwide since 2020.

“More than 70 new ATCs are due in FY2024, and a further 80 ATCs are projected to join us each year moving forward to add further depth to our ATC rosters.

“We notified airlines and relevant air traffic management authorities of the variation as soon as possible to allow them to make any necessary operational adjustments.”

The airspace closures usually force aircraft to self-separate from each other and rely on radio broadcasts from other pilots, rather than centralised information from air traffic controllers.

Switching to TIBA — traffic information broadcasts by aircraft — leads to delays and cancellations, with Virgin’s policy not to operate in TIBA airspace when possible.

Airservices, however, had long insisted its TIBA workaround procedure is both safe and “internationally recognised”.

Airservices chief executive officer Jason Harfield told Australian Aviation in November there was no “magic number” for how many air traffic control staff are needed to cover Australia and that ATC staffing issues have less to do with raw numbers than where those numbers fall.

He said while in a perfect world, Airservices would need 800 qualified air traffic controllers, the fact that it currently has around 900 does not necessarily mean the entire system is covered.

“We sometimes fall into thinking if we have a magic number that everything’s OK, but it’s like anything to do with staffing and humans, it never stays static,” he said.

“That difference looks good on paper, but in the real world, you know, some people are on long service leave, some people are on maternity leave, people lose their medical qualification … but also, that big number doesn’t break down to these five [people] that are qualified for [one] position, 10 qualified for [another] position. And if somebody [in one position] isn’t available, that has a bigger impact.

“So we sort of tried to stop focusing on the number, but also, what’s the service outcome? Are we providing the right level of service? What’s the resourcing required and the flexibility required, for instance? That’s not a numbers game.”

Harfield said the controversial retirement incentive scheme that saw 138 employees leave Airservices, at least 124 of whom were operational ATCs, had contributed to staffing issues, but stressed that Airservices had “been very careful” with the scheme and limited it to people who were due to retire within the next few years regardless.

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