Air traffic control union warns overtime burden may lead to airspace closures | Australia news

Australia’s air traffic control agency relies on hundreds of hours of overtime as it struggles to fill shifts in airport towers, a union analysis of internal rostering documents shows.

The staff union representing the nation’s air traffic controllers, Civil Air, has warned that understaffing problems at Airservices Australia are so severe they threaten to undermine its ability to provide air traffic services.

“The consequences ultimately are a reduction of air service provision, which could mean airspace closures, potentially, or a restriction of services or hours,” Peter McGuane, the union’s executive secretary, said. “The potential for that to happen is quite real.”

Airservices strongly denied the claim, which says there is no shortage of air traffic controllers. It says there have been no airspace closures and no reduction in its ability to manage airspace safely and efficiently.

The organization said it had over 900 air traffic controllers, with another 65 in training, and requires about 800 to fully staff the air traffic management system.

“Like most industries, we are experiencing the impacts of Covid-19 and one of the worst flu seasons seen in years, leading to high levels of short-notice, unplanned absences of our staff,” an Airservices spokesperson said. “We are safely managing these short-term, unplanned absences through overtime shifts, governed by our Fatigue Risk Management System.”

Last week, Airservices introduced a new service for air traffic in and out of Rockhampton and Mackay airports.

A union analysis of rosters for that service, seen by the Guardian, shows the scale of the overtime.

Operational shifts remain vacant almost every day of June and all of July. Each day has at least one functional change empty. Some days have as many as five, according to the analysis.

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A huge increase in overtime is covering the shifts. Civil Air estimates that Cairns control tower relied on 155 overtime hours in nine days from 10-19 June alone.

Overtime has exceeded 100 hours in the same nine-day period at Fraser, Monaro, Brisbane, Melbourne, and Canberra, while Sydney recorded more than 500 hours, the data suggests.

Civil Air said last year’s announcement of a new retirement incentive scheme, which encouraged more than 100 controllers to accept generous packages, had compounded the problem.

That had exacerbated staffing pressures caused by Covid and the flu season.

“Those remaining have to fill the gaps, and while we’re pleased that members have been recognized for long careers and have been given the incentive to leave, it places an obligation on those remaining to work overtime to cover those vacant shifts,” McGuane said. “That impacts their work-life balance.”

He said understaffing could ultimately create a “safety risk”.

Airservices strongly denied any suggestion that safety had been compromised.

It said the retirement incentive scheme had not “impacted our capacity to manage Australia’s air traffic management system safely”.

The scheme had been enacted during Covid, a time of reduced air travel, to minimize the impact on departing staff, Airservices said. Training of new controllers had been stepped up in parallel, it said.

Airservices said the new approach service for Rockhampton and Mackay was not understaffed.

“The service has been over-rostered while we establish demand and is not compromised by staff availability.”

Bella E. McMahon
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