Due to manpower shortages caused by COVID isolation, flash flooding, and an underlying lack of skilled professionals, regional airspace around Australia has been left without air traffic controllers.
According to a report in The Australian, air traffic controllers have been compelled to “close” airspace more frequently as a result of a shortage of manpower, after 10% of the workers took advantage of attractive early retirement packages.
Flash floods in Queensland and NSW, as well with COVID-19 isolation rules, have compounded the problems in recent months.
There have been 127 airspace closures in Australia since February, compared to just 107 for the full year of 2021.
Closures have been particularly severe in regional parts of NSW, Queensland, and Western Australia, including Rockhampton to Mackay, the Sunshine Coast, Ballina and Byron Bay, Tamworth, Cairns, Coffs Harbour, Gwydir, and Jandakot.
While planes can still fly without the help of air traffic control, pilots must revert to “see-and-avoid” principles and rely on radio communication to keep separations.
It comes after the Australian Transport Safety Bureau recently ruled that “luck alone” prevented a collision between a packed Jetstar A320 and an amateur-built Jabiru J230D near Byron Bay in November 2020.
Parts of the airspace near Byron Bay are uncontrolled, and the ATSB discovered that the Jabiru’s pilot did not recall hearing any transmissions from the A320, and the A320’s crew did not recollect hearing any broadcasts from the Jabiru either.
“It becomes the responsibility of the flight crews to monitor and broadcast their position so then it’s a question of whether the individual operators or airlines are prepared to transit or fly through that airspace,” said Peter McGuane, executive secretary of the air traffic controllers’ union Civil Air.
“It would be a matter of company policy for the individual operators and the majority of those would certainly choose not to transit that airspace for safety reasons.”
While COVID-related absences and flooding are both contributing to staffing concerns in air traffic control towers, McGuane indicated that the biggest issue remains a shortage of competent workers, after over 10% of the ATC workforce accepted early retirement incentives in 2020 and 2021.
McGuane claims that 130 controllers aged 56 and up took packages worth $300,000 to $400,000.
“While we’re pleased that large numbers of our members were able to maximize their exit from the organization after long careers, there is ongoing concern about the ability to manage staff shortages in those circumstances,” he said.
After Brisbane-based controllers clocked 67 hours of overtime in one week last month, McGuane said the staffing issue is beginning to take its toll on personnel who are being forced to work overtime and cover additional shifts.
“It does have an impact on a person’s wellbeing,” he said. “You’ve not only got your work environment to deal with but the external factors and the question of work-life balance and it’s creating a tremendous amount of uncertainty and stress for people.”
“It’s a situation where we’ll be closely monitoring all those factors to ensure adequate numbers are achieved and maintained,” McGuane said.