Aviation experts say advances in technology will lead to further centralisation of Australia’s air traffic control operations over the coming years without risking air safety.
Airservices Australia, which oversees the country’s civilian air space, plans to relocate up to 65 air traffic controllers from its terminal control unit at Sydney Airport to Melbourne over the next two years.
The plan is partly aimed at cutting costs amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has sparked calls from small aircraft operators for Airservices to pass on the savings to the industry in lower fees.
Terminal control services for Canberra, Gold Coast, Adelaide and Cairns have been centralised in Melbourne and Brisbane over the past two decades. In the UK, the terminal airspace for London’s Heathrow Airport is managed at an operations centre in Swanwick near Southampton.
The planned relocation to Melbourne 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.
Air safety expert Geoff Dell said further consolidation of control operations in Australia was inevitable as technology advanced, and was likely to be matched with safety improvements.
“With the technology, I don’t think it matters where [the air traffic controllers] are – they don’t look out the window,” said Dr Dell, an associate professor at Central Queensland University and a former Qantas safety manager. “It is a continuation of the evolution that started with radar.”
Dr Dell said the technology was already available for Airservices to consolidate its terminal control centres for Australia in one location. “I can see it going to one,” he said.
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.
Dr Dell said it would make it easer for Airservices to roster, supervise and train controllers if the Sydney unit was merged into the Melbourne operations.
“It is probably more of an efficiency gain that they are seeking,” he said. “By and large, with technology gains you get efficiency and safety improvements along with it.”
Rico Merkert, an aviation expert at the University of Sydney, said technological advances were leading to the consolidation of air traffic control services in other countries, noting that aircraft flying in and out of six airports in Norway were entirely controlled from one centre. “They have sensors and cameras in the towers. It’s almost as if [the controllers in the centre] would look out the window and get everything a normal person who was there [in the tower] would see,” he said.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which represents the general aviation sector, said Airservices needed to fully consult with the industry about the proposed changes to ensure that unintended consequences did not arise.
And while supportive of changes that would cut costs, the association’s chief executive, Ben Morgan, said the industry wanted Airservices, which levies aircraft operators for using its services, to pass on the savings to the industry instead of raising the salaries of its senior management.
Virgin Australia said it was engaging with Airservices on the operational risks associated with its proposal, and any impacts to air-traffic control service levels in and around greater Sydney.
Qantas said it had been advised that the proposed change would not impact air traffic control for its flights or those of its budget offshoot, Jetstar.
Australia’s air-safety regulator said it was aware of the proposal to shift terminal control functions from Sydney to Melbourne but was waiting on the detailed plans.
“Once these have been received, we will carefully review all regulatory and safety issues. Travellers can be assured safety standards will be maintained if any changes are made,” a Civil Aviation Safety Authority spokesman said.
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