Plan to shift half of Sydney’s air traffic controllers to Melbourne

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Plan to shift half of Sydney’s air traffic controllers to Melbourne

By Matt O'Sullivan

Aircraft flying through all but a small part of greater Sydney’s airspace would be handled by a control centre in Melbourne under a controversial plan partly aimed at cutting costs by shifting up to half the city’s air traffic controllers to Victoria.

Airservices Australia’s plan to relocate up to 65 air traffic controllers to Melbourne from its terminal control unit at Sydney Airport is contained in internal briefing documents seen by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

A relocation to Melbourne would directly impact on 65 of the 130 air traffic controllers in Sydney.

A relocation to Melbourne would directly impact on 65 of the 130 air traffic controllers in Sydney.Credit:Janie Barrett

One of Airservices’ justifications for the shift is a need for “more cost-efficient solutions” due to the financial strain on the aviation industry from the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal corporation’s documents say the “transfer of services” to Melbourne will help it “avoid the costs of significant infrastructure replacement” in Sydney.

The building at Sydney Airport where the 65 air-traffic controllers are based is “nearing [the] end of life”, and there is no guarantee the long-term lease on it will be extended when it expires in 2034 because the site is designated for commercial use. It also argues “deeper pools of skilled professionals” are available only at its larger facilities such as those in Melbourne.

The controllers who work in the terminal control unit at Sydney Airport use radar control screens to sequence and separate aircraft in an area stretching from Shellharbour in the south, the Central Coast in the north, Katoomba in the west and out above the Tasman Sea.

The relocation would directly affect 65 of 130 air traffic controllers in Sydney. It would not impact those in the control tower at Sydney Airport who guide aircraft within about seven kilometres of the tarmac. Greater Sydney’s airspace is easily the country’s busiest.

Sydney’s air space is easily the busiest in the country.

Sydney’s air space is easily the busiest in the country.Credit:Louise Kennerley

Civil Air, the union representing air traffic controllers, said it was concerned about the plan and it would be on the agenda of a national executive meeting on Wednesday.

“We have been through this on previous occasions and it has not stood up to scrutiny for various financial, operational and technical issues,” Civil Air executive secretary Peter McGuane said.

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An air traffic controller, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said most of those affected in Sydney did not want to relocate.

A major concern is controllers in Melbourne will not be as familiar with Sydney’s geography, which could potentially impact on small aircraft.

“It is not so much the international or domestic aircraft – it is the general aviation community. Those are the scariest emergencies for us because we are dealing with less trained pilots and older aircraft. The knowledge of the controller becomes such a key factor,” the controller said.

The federal government-owned Airservices has about 135 air traffic controllers in greater Sydney.

The federal government-owned Airservices has about 135 air traffic controllers in greater Sydney.Credit:Steven Siewert

Sydney has up to 650 aircraft movements a day, which is not far off an average of about 850 before the pandemic hit last year.

“Traffic is increasing already and most of the controllers think the window they have targeted [to relocate] has already closed,” the controller said.

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The terminal control unit at Sydney Airport also manages aircraft arriving at and departing from Richmond, Bankstown and Camden airports, in concert with the control towers at each of those locations.

Airservices expects to make a final decision in June about the shift, a process which would take about two years to complete.

Airservices confirmed it was in the “initial stages” of consulting staff on the future of the Sydney control unit, adding there would be “no required job losses”.

“The management of terminal area airspace from major air traffic service centres is safe and a model used around the world,” a spokeswoman said.

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She said Sydney’s airspace would continue to be managed by specialist controllers with a deep understanding of it. “The only thing that will change is the location of this service,” she said.

Airservices said the investigation into the feasibility of integrating the Sydney unit into the Melbourne air traffic service centre was driven by the pandemic.

“It is also important that Airservices strives to keep air traffic control costs as low as possible to assist the aviation industry’s recovery from COVID-19,” the spokeswoman said.

Over the past two decades, terminal control services for Canberra, Gold Coast, Adelaide and Cairns have been centralised in Melbourne and Brisbane.

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