As a follow up to recent stories that have appeared in Crikey about fatigue in the airline industry, the public will be pleased to know that it’s about to get a whole lot worse.

In 2005 Melbourne initiated dual person coverage on air traffic control night shifts at a total cost of 4.1 FTE (full time equivalent) staff. This equates to about $450K per annum. The costs of the dual coverage was offset by reduced sick-leave (but it’s not exactly quantifiable) on night shifts and thus reduced overtime expenditure required to cover that sick-leave (the preferred method for self-managing fatigue); although there probably still is a small cost overall. But we are taking safety not money right?

You may hear that sick-leave is trending up; this is probably equally proportional to the increases in overtime being worked, the plummeting morale, the never ending corporate restructure and the threats to move the workforce onto AWAs; being cognizant that the supervisors were effectively forced onto them earlier this year with a “Godfather Offer” (an individual AWA, a collective AWA which is worse than the individual offer, or a reduction in classification).

Among the reasons for introducing dual coverage at night was to facilitate “real breaks” on night shifts, like going to the toilet and watching TV or napping while not on “the console”. The reality of the “dual coverage” was that the shift was split between two people who worked for about 2.5 hours continuously without a break and the other got a reasonable (paid) sleep. This no doubt reduces fatigue and subsequently increases the staff’s ability to attend other rostered shifts and other “requested” overtime shifts. The average roster goes 3pm-11pm, 1pm-8pm, 6am-1pm, 11pm-6am (the same day as the 6am start), then two days off (with an overtime shift thrown in) then repeats; with some variations to have a 36 hour week on average.

Anecdotal evidence suggest that sleep doesn’t only occur in the Melbourne stand-down rooms (known as “the cells”, due to design, size and temperature) but also on Brisbane operational consoles (and other ATC locations that work night shifts), where dual staffing was never introduced because the “right” staffing numbers were never established.

A memo was issued after previous stories appeared in Crikey saying don’t sleep at the consoles, and the controllers are required to be “fit for duty” when attending work, which includes not being in a state of fatigue. Problem fixed, right?

Effective from the next set of rosters, some commencing at the end of this month, the dual coverage in Melbourne Centre will be reduced to introduce part of the “corporate restructure” along “Service Delivery Lines”. This project is moving people around, creating huge training requirements and thus leaving less staff with the right qualifications and creating huge amounts of overtime, for no apparent reason, other than the corporate desire (it’s the plan). It’s certainly not for safety; controllers can’t ever see it saving a buck either.

At the moment Australia is officially short of 29 operational controllers. After the new overseas recruits have been taken into account (most on VISA 457 entries), it’s actually 45 right now; cause they aren’t operational yet and won’t be for some time.

We have something like 80 ATCs who are not fit for operational duties for numerous reasons, like maternity leave, long term sick leave, long service leave etc (but you’d expect that over a 980 workforce, right?). Some controllers will be the only “qualified” controller rostered to work alone for seven hours; which is hardly consistent with Airservices own fatigue management policies or OH&S guidelines.

Are they going to put unqualified controllers into the chair, who can monitor frequencies and take requests then find the controller who is qualified, who’s on a break, to make the decision? Or just tell the pilot of the aeroplane “expect that in XX minutes” when the qualified controller returns to duty? It’s akin to a brain surgeon being relieved by a bowel surgeon while he goes for a leak and a walk. Well, he is a surgeon; it’s not like we put the cleaner in charge is it?

What does the regulator (CASA) say? Well, apparently nothing. Does the public know, do pilots know, does the minister know that un-Endorsed (= unqualified) air traffic controllers will be looking after you, at some stage between Adelaide and Cairns particularly, on night shifts, or at any other time Australia wide, when we are too short to cover the consoles, on the basis of short term break relief?

Anyone want to rethink those late night departures to Asia or on the Pacific routes (before getting over the ocean) or the international early (pre 8am) morning arrivals?

Meanwhile, more and more aeroplanes are flying carrying more and more passengers; and Tiger is about to start, plus add on some A380’s (which require extra spacing compared to what they replace) and some “Jungle Jets” that Virgin Blue is adding to their fleet. Nero, keep fiddling please, everything’s fine. NOT!

Peter Fray

Help us keep up the fight

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today and get your first 12 weeks for $12.

Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey