If Virgin Blue’s calculations are right, a bill from Qantas to AirServices Australia seeking $2 million compensation for delays to its flights out of Sydney on Friday should be on its way.

Virgin Blue has invoiced the air traffic control provider $500,000 for the average 50 minutes delay caused to 120 of its flights when there were insufficient controllers on duty to allow them to arrive or depart on time.

The service failure stuffed Sydney Airport for most of last Friday and part of the weekend, on top of unrelated reservation computer problems that delayed some Jetstar flights for more than a day.

Scaled up to the delays forced on Qantas domestic and international flights, the risk to the credibility of the stance by Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese, that this is just a union campaign for better pay, is obvious.

It’s more than that, it’s really about a critical piece of infrastructure that is failing to perform as required.

Two out of the three controllers who couldn’t report for duty last Friday weren’t members of the Civil Air union. But they were all subject to very strict laws prohibiting being on duty when ill or fatigued.

Nor is it just a stunt by Virgin Blue. Loss of utilisation of aircraft because a basic service can’t be reliably provided by AirServices Australia can cost the carriers serious money.

Tiger Airways has complained that it is burning two tonnes more fuel than necessary on some flights because it refuses on safety grounds to fly around the large areas of Australian airspace where AirServices Australia often finds itself unable to provide controlled separation between aircraft.

At current fuel prices and with a lower Australian dollar, that is a cost penalty of more than $10,000 per flight, and a highway to ruin for any airline if it persists as a regular occurrence.

The minister has so far dealt publicly with the situation at AirServices Australia by reciting the excuses made by its management. Will he ignore the airlines when they refuse to pay for services they don’t get and demand compensation for the damage done to their businesses?

Read more in ‘Earth calling Albanese’ at Ben Sandilands’ Crikey blog Plane Talking.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey