Australia’s biggest pilots’ union has claimed air traffic control staffing issues are making skies less safe for pilots and passengers.
The Australian Federation of Air Pilots (AFAP) has told Australian Aviation that its members have encountered “chronic” and “systemic” staffing problems at Airservices dating back to before the COVID-19 pandemic.
It comes after reports emerged earlier this year that there were 340 instances of “uncontrolled airspace” from June to April 2023, with Airservices admitting to “staff availability issues”.
The issue re-emerged last week after aircraft on Thursday had to “self-separate” from each other and rely on radio broadcasts rather than centralised information from air traffic controllers.
Switching to TIBA — traffic information broadcasts by aircraft — leads to delays and cancellations, with Virgin’s policy not to operate in TIBA airspace when possible. Airservices, however, insists its TIBA workaround procedure is both safe and “internationally recognised”.
In an exclusive interview with Australian Aviation, Captain Louise Pole, president of AFAP, and Marcus Diamond, safety and technical manager at AFAP, detailed the issues its members have encountered.
Captain Pole pointed to a survey of AFAP members that found almost 31 per cent of pilots experienced delays multiple times per month, 72 per cent reported an efficiency of flight issue due to contingency measures like TIBA, which most pilots see as unsafe and inefficient, and 15 per cent reported traffic proximity or separation issues within the last six months.
“We’ve had extensive responses from all our members around Australia that they are experiencing unforecast holding due to lack of available air traffic control staffing numbers. They’re experiencing TIBA airspace at short notice, and that’s possibly meaning flights can’t depart — and if they can depart, they’ve got quite large diversion routes required to go around that airspace,” she said.
“The vast majority of pilots have now experienced TIBA, where up until about nine months ago, most pilots didn’t even remember what the acronym meant, because it was so infrequently used.”
According to Captain Pole, the issue is getting “worse and worse” despite Airservices’ insistence that it has enough ATC staff to cover requirements.
“I have experienced that myself many times recently, where they just don’t have enough staff in certain sectors on certain days — and they don’t tell you in a lot of situations that this is happening, so you’re already airborne and then they increase holding requirements,” she said.
“For pilots, when they plan to fly from, say, Sydney to Brisbane, they know how long it’s going to take to get there. They have to carry extra fuel for certain contingencies, they always do. However, if there’s a lot of people and bags on board, or freight, they might not be able to carry much extra fuel above what is required.
“If [ATC] then suddenly puts holding on aircraft, pilots just haven’t planned for enough fuel. They end up having to divert to be able to refuel, because they can’t continue the flight with the safe fuel requirements.”
Diamond told Australian Aviation that ATC staffing issues put pilots in an “invidious position” and limit options available to them.
“It’s constraining decision making happening in the air, and that makes things less safe,” he said. “Most of these pilots at the moment are being rostered to limits within the fatigue rules, and the fatigue rules have expanded now with [Fatigue Risk Management Systems].
“If you think about it, TIBA and the undeclared holding delays … adds on to the last leg of the day for their fatigue extensions, and they’re now in a position where they’re tired at the end of a very long day, and they’ve got limited decision-making capability because their airspace is being shut and they’ve got less fuel.”
Captain Pole says she wants an acknowledgement from Airservices that staffing is not at required levels, as well as an independent review of staffing requirements.
“[Airservices should] put in some robust procedures to manage the airspace with the current staffing levels they have while they build up the required numbers,” she said.
“We also want to be seeing that pilots are notified appropriately ahead of flights that they need to plan for extra holding or extra flight time if there’s going to be delays caused by staffing issues, which is currently not happening consistently.”
Airservices previously told The Australian that during last week’s effective shutdown period, it would “manage the airspace safely by implementing internationally recognised procedures and continuing to provide a flight information service, a search and rescue alerting service, and a safety alerting service using an air traffic controller who will monitor the frequency the pilots are operating on and surveil the airspace”.
Airservices added it was “enhancing its service resilience” by recruiting more than 50 trainees nationwide in the next three months and that 80 air traffic controllers are due in the 2024 financial year.
Earlier this year, Airservices again denied a long-term staffing issue, arguing it employed 900 ATCs but only required 800 to staff its network fully.