Sydney had a jet jam involving thousands of delayed travellers yesterday, both in the ground and in the terminals, just over a year after AirServices Australia promised to fix an air traffic staffing shortfall by the end of September 2008.

The essential figures are that Sydney Airport was supposed to operate on a roster of 10 air traffic controllers, but only three were available yesterday.

AirServices boasts a payroll of over 3000 staff. Why a mere six of them are considered all that are necessary for approach and departure control at such a critically important airport is almost as much a mystery as to what a large part of the staff actually do in terms of productive work.

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There appear to be more media managers and image massagers than Sydney controllers on the ASA payroll. Questions asked of AirServices went unanswered this morning.

It is also a mystery why the Minister for Infrastructure, Anthony Albanese, believes anything AirServices says, including its claims last year that air traffic manning issues were really part of an industrial campaign.

There has been industrial peace in the skies since May. But the services remains undermanned according to the union, Civil Air, which has also been critical of AirServices failure to adequately train controllers for both replacement and expansion.

Nor does it represent all controllers. In the last year, air traffic control disruptions have continued across Australia because of shortages of union and non-union staff.

The president of the Civil Air union, Robert Mason, said “four out of ten of 796 controllers will retire in the next five years, and we are 100 short of the minimum needed for certainty of service today.”

The inescapable truth about AirServices is that it has botched the resourcing of the service, and Albanese has been unable to find either the time or inclination within the Infrastructure super-ministry to engage with and resolve the situation.

In the delays near Sydney yesterday, airliners were assigned positions in wide ranging holding patterns to ensure they lined up in a safe order for arrivals, while departures were spaced out along routes intended to give a wide berth to the squadron of circling jets.

None of which would have been necessary when route control is handed over to approach and departure control at busy airports.

Air traffic control was invented because of the uncertainties of self separation. It is a no brainer, just like the administration of air traffic control in this country.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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