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Qantas pilots say lack of air traffic controllers threatens safety

written by Adam Thorn | January 1, 2023

Victor Pody shot this Qantas 787-9, VH-ZNI, in Melbourne

The professional body representing Qantas pilots has said it isn’t safe to have large swathes of regional Australia not serviced by air traffic controllers.

It comes after The Australian revealed that there were 340 instances of ‘uncontrolled airspace’ recorded since June last year in areas usually monitored by staff in towers.

Airservices, which oversees air traffic control, put the absences down to sickness caused by flu and COVID-19 and insisted the practice didn’t put lives at risk.

However, AIPA president and Qantas pilot, Tony Lucas, called the practice unsafe and said flying in unsupervised areas means pilots have to ‘self-separate’, which increases their workload.

“It increases our operational complexity and workload because we are now trying to separate ourselves from other aircraft, potentially impacting safety,” he said.


“These sorts of events should not be happening frequently and certainly not due to resourcing issues.

“Leaving airspace uncontrolled should only happen in near-emergency situations, such as a fire in an air traffic control centre, for a very short period of time.

“We need to build more resilience into the system to make sure these events are not happening on a regular basis.”

Lucas’ views appeared to directly contradict those of Airservices, which insisted there are “safe and globally recognised procedures” in place to enable pilots to cope with uncontrolled airspace.

It added the situation was due to “staff availability issues”.

“We employ more than 900 air traffic controllers and require 800 air traffic controllers at any one time to fully staff the air traffic management system across the country,” Airservices said.

“There are a further 65 air traffic controllers in training. Like all other sectors of the economy, we have experienced staff availability issues this year due to the worst flu season in years and COVID-19 infections.

“Over the past 12 months, our air traffic control workforce has taken 19,700 days of unplanned leave, principally due to illness. This is 44 per cent higher than our pre-pandemic average.

“But despite this, our service level has been varied by less than 0.1 per cent of the total time this year.

“The airspace continues to be monitored at our major air traffic management centres, access to the airspace is regulated to ensure aircraft separation, and pilots follow internationally recognised procedures to ensure separation.”

In Australia, there are two major types of airspace: controlled and uncontrolled. Controlled is actively monitored and managed by air traffic controllers and requires clearance to enter.

Uncontrolled airspace has no supervision, so no clearance is required. This is traditionally where the majority of helicopters and light aircraft operate in.

The instances reported by The Australian crucially referred to usually controlled airspace that temporarily has no controllers working.

The revelation comes months after Australian Aviation obtained a recording that revealed how air traffic control missed one of the most serious aviation safety incidents in a generation involving a packed A330.

It also followed two landmark reports that made claims of a toxic culture at Airservices.

The first, by a Federal Court QC, argued its culture was so poor it could “endanger the lives of air travellers”, while a second revealed an “unacceptable” atmosphere of bullying, sexual harassment, and racism.

Airservices said the earlier investigation’s claims were “false and alarmist” but implemented the recommendations of the second, which it commissioned.

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