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Airservices performance slips in December as staffing issues bite

written by Jake Nelson | January 15, 2024

A Virgin 737-800 parked in front of Brisbane’s air traffic control tower. (Image: Brisbane Airport)

Airservices Australia has blamed “staff availability challenges”, mainly in Brisbane, for a slip in its performance last month.

In its latest Network Overview report for December 2023, the body responsible for air traffic control in Australia acknowledged that 16 per cent of ground delays last month were attributable to Airservices, up from 11 per cent in October and November.

Delays due to ATC issues had declined from July to November after June tied with February for the second-worst performance of the year at 23 per cent, behind January at 26 per cent. Arrival cancellations attributable to Airservices remained low in December at six per cent.

In the report, Airservices did note the resilience of the aviation industry in the face of severe weather events such as Cyclone Jasper and its subsequent flooding, which forced the closure of Cairns Airport, as well as the storm cells over Christmas that partially flooded Sydney Airport, and said most East Coast ground delays in December were due to adverse weather.

“Our centralised approach to airspace management ensured that Cairns could continue to be safely managed from our air traffic services centre in Brisbane to support essential service delivery during the cyclone and flooding,” the report read.


“Nevertheless, the consistency of air traffic service levels in airspace volumes managed from Brisbane and at some regional airports remained below expected levels, and service variations over the Christmas and new year holiday period were a disappointing outcome both for ourselves and more importantly for our customers.

“Our program to increase staffing and improve internal business processes continues to be executed nationally, with specific and additional measures being deployed at our Brisbane Centre.”

Airservices CEO Jason Harfield last year told reporters that there is no “magic number” for ATC staffing, as controllers are trained and qualified for different positions.

“We sometimes fall into thinking if we have a magic number that everything’s OK, but it’s like anything to do with staffing and humans, it never stays static,” he said.

“That difference looks good on paper, but in the real world, you know, some people are on long service leave, some people are on maternity leave, people lose their medical qualification.

“Also, that big number doesn’t break down to these five [people] that are qualified for [one] position, ten qualified for [another] position. And if somebody [in one position] isn’t available, that has a bigger impact.

“So we sort of tried to stop focusing on the number, but also, what’s the service outcome? Are we providing the right level of service? What’s the resourcing required and the flexibility required, for instance? That’s not a numbers game.”

Airservices has said it is continuing to invest in enhancing its service resilience by recruiting trainees, with 80 new air traffic controllers due in the 2024 financial year.

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