Last Friday afternoon for about two hours between Melbourne and Sydney, during the busiest of peak hours for the busiest air route in the country, thousands of passengers were trapped in jets or in terminals because AirServices Australia couldn’t fully man the air traffic control system.

Crikey subscriber ‘Peter’ on board QF 448 to Sydney took notes.

As we finished boarding and the door was closed, the captain came on fairly quickly to advise us there was a problem with air traffic control and he was trying to get to the bottom of it.

There was a distinct and vocal response from passengers on the near-full flight. The captain reiterated it was a problem from AirServices Australia, beyond the control of anybody at Qantas.

We were updated that there was industrial action by controllers and it was unclear how long we would be delayed and that in the circumstances, we were free to turn on and use any ‘electronic devices’.

Quite clearly aggrieved, the captain advised he was getting off the aircraft to make a number of calls and speak with the Qantas chief pilot. Upon his return, he addressed us again to advise that the chief pilot had instructed him not to fly in unmanned airspace. He explained the safety aspects, saying it involved taking risks Qantas wasn’t prepared to take and supported his boss saying, “I applauded this decision.”

The mood in the cabin was very supporting of Qantas notwithstanding the problems the delays were causing to us. He again pointed out it was not the fault of anyone at Qantas and there was nothing we could do, except to contact our politicians and call for them to fix this mess. I thought maybe there was something I could do right now, and I’d give it my best shot. I put a call in to Greg Russell, CEO of Airservices Australia.

I got through to the switch, and proceeded through a number of gatekeepers until I got to his PA, Andreas. He asked my name and what it was in relation to. I gave my name and explained I was passenger 46B on flight QF448, and that I was being held to ransom by the actions of his company.

Andreas sounded a bit miffed, as well as confused, advising me there was no industrial action today. I assured him I was encountering a significant delay on the tarmac, allegedly due to the lack of air traffic controllers. He mumbled something then informed me that Greg Russell “doesn’t take these kind of calls and was sure there was no industrial action today” and asked me to hold.

I was finally put through to their corporate public affairs guy who humoured me and handled the call with courtesy as he explained his understanding of the situation. He conceded it could be either a genuine mass sick leave occurrence (perhaps some rabid and virulent strain of diarrhoea,) or it could be “covert industrial action, as we are in a collective bargaining period — it has happened before.” He even had a laugh when I suggested if it was found that this was covert industrial action, we return to public stoning — it was Friday night after all.

Let’s get this in perspective: all airspace on the Easter seaboard of Australia shut down from 4:30-6:30pm on a Friday night. Thousands of business travellers were held to ransom over something that has absolutely nothing to do with them.

The crew did their best to understand and accommodate the national and international flight connections of those on board, but the impact is real, for everybody. My colleague missed his son’s first water polo grand final (they lost), another nearby passenger was going to miss a wedding in Singapore. The hostie had planned to watch a DVD with her hubby.

But Greg Russell didn’t want to hear about the personal impact of the failings of the business he runs.

Well Mr Russell, maybe if your time is so important not to take calls from the peasants being held hostage for two hours… because the business you are responsible for cannot deliver the service it is paid to deliver, perhaps you should at least humour them by drafting a form letter apologising to their families — especially the kids — for the little bits of life that are actually important to them that you caused their mum or dad to miss.

Or you could have a crack at fixing the business you are responsible for running.

Peter’s notes are significant for other reasons. This is more evidence of the lies that are told by AirServices Australia and CASA about how not having controlled separation in our skies is safe. Qantas is telling them it is unsafe. It is AirServices major customer. It has had such a gut-full of nonsense over this it is mobilising its passengers to complain.

It is incredible in a modern nation that flights between the two largest cities can’t be given reliable air traffic control. Russell claimed early last August the staffing problems would be over by the end of that month. He’s the CEO. How could he get it so wrong? Does AirServices really expect people to believe it has been crippled by an industrial agreement negotiating process for a whole year of staffing screw ups?

It wasn’t lack of dollars in pay packets that kept controllers away from Melbourne on Friday night, or away from Sydney, causing more widespread chaos on Saturday; it was lack of staff. AirServices hasn’t managed its human resources. It slashed deeply into training and made errors in staff allocation. If it was just about the pay, no one would be left to man anything at AirServices. They would all be working for far better pay and conditions in Eire, Germany and the Middle East.

When is this curtain of bulldust going to drop away and compel the minister to confront this dangerous and unsatisfactory state of affairs in Australian air traffic control?

Perhaps as soon as tomorrow, when he releases the green paper on future aviation policy. Or will that also disappoint?

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.

 

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW