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Global ATC issues

Posted: 10 June 2005 | Marc Baumgartner, President and CEO, International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers’ Association (IFATCA) and Nicos Lyrakides, EVP Europe | No comments yet

The President of IFATCA shares his views on where the value lies in the global ATM arena.

The President of IFATCA shares his views on where the value lies in the global ATM arena. We all know that Air Traffic Control (ATC) is a global issue. In today’s world of politics and economics, the word ‘global’ has taken on a very strong meaning. It has become synonymous not only with economic successes but also with excesses. Until recently everyone looked at ATC as a state issue, but harmonisation programmes such as FANS and the EU Single Sky Initiative are slowly but surely placing ATC issues away from individual states and into the ‘global’ arena. Interest is high because in order to sustain predicted traffic growth, whether Continental or Oceanic, we need to make sure that a sustainable airspace system is available at national, regional and global, levels. The air traffic management methods, air traffic services and airplane capabilities will have to further evolve in order to support this continued growth. To accommodate growth, one has to invest in hardware and resources. Let us leave aside technical and hardware solutions, as there are plenty of those around. But for now let us consider the resources, particularly resources of the human kind, as it will be the people who form part of the solution to provide the additional capacity required in the next 10-15 years. By people we of course mean air traffic controllers. But what is the situation of ATC controllers around the world today that may give us cause for concern? Recognition of our job is still lacking in many countries. What do I mean by recognition? Not only has recognition to do with paying the Air Traffic Control Officer (ATCO) a decent salary but is also recognition of what is being done, not only in ensuring safety but also in their contribution to the global economy. The fact that we are workers not in the spotlight, except in a negative way, does not help to make our cause better understood. Whereas this has for a long time helped us to work in a protected, not liberalised environment, jealousy and anachronistic ideas have led in recent years to some fundamental attacks on our profession and the basic recognition of the part we play in making the aviation system and the global economy work. Let us look briefly into the global situation today and discover what the tendencies are, what this movement towards a global ATC is really about. The following are only recent examples and are not, unfortunately the only ones. Australia: At its smaller units, controllers are making the system run only with excessive use of overtime, under what is described as ‘slavery conditions’. Belarus: The government of Belarus has denied fundamental rights to workers including ATCOs and as a solution to the problem has fired the President of the Air Traffic Controller Association. The Dominican Republic, Peru and Costa Rica: In recent months, the governments of these nations have all used armed forces to prohibit well trained ATCOs from carrying out their job. Not only did they create chaos and huge losses for the airlines and the countries economies, but they had the arrogance and some would say total disregard for the safety of the flying public by permitting unqualified personnel (foreign, untrained, military personnel) to manage the airspace. This resulted in the total or partial shutting down of the respective airspace. Germany: In order to save money through reduced manpower, the service provider is establishing a procedure (against ICAO rules) that will allow an airport control tower to be closed during night, while that airfield, remaining open, will be controlled by another control tower, located a hundred kilometres away. This concept, called ‘Remote TWR Concept’ is strongly contested by IFATCA. Although not yet in place due to some technical problems, work continues as a cost-cutting exercise, saving money through reduced manpower. Guatemala: Following an industrial action, most of the countries controllers were expelled from their working positions and replaced by unqualified (i.e. unlicensed) personnel. Italy: After the Linate runway collision, an Italian judge has condemned an ATCO to eight years imprisonment for an alleged operational error. On top of this he has banned him from any government job. He was also attacked and received threats to his life by members of the victims’ families. Norway: The Norwegian air traffic service provider has embarked on a cost reduction exercise and has proposed to close down the biggest service unit (OSLO ACC) – this has led to a spontaneous reaction of the ATCO’s working in this unit – that they felt emotionally unfit to do their job resulting in higher than normal sickness. This resulted in a cost of millions of Euros to the Norwegian and European air transport system and has led to 10 000 passengers stranded throughout Europe. Russian Federation: By changing the controller’s medical requirements to maintain an ATC licence in a non-transparent way, the Russian administration is suspending experienced (expensive) controllers as they are no longer medically fit to do the job. South Africa: A controller had fallen asleep at the working console as a result of fatigue. Investigation showed that he had worked nine consecutive shifts, many of those being nightshifts. Switzerland: The tragic murder of our Danish colleague, who was working during the night of the Ueberlingen mid-air collision, is still affecting every controller today. How this could happen is still unanswered. USA: While in a constant struggle to meet budgetary constraints, the FAA has to invest massively into new technology and is running behind almost all its partners in that respect. They will also face tremendous controller shortage in the coming years. The US Government tried in an undemocratic and totally unfair manner to privatise part of the FAA’s ATC system.

Dealing with change

Air traffic management is undergoing considerable change. New concepts of what ATM is, or should become, are being investigated and interested groups are lobbying for their particular favourite concept. The rate of change and the number of areas of change are also increasing. Today IFATCA is well represented on the international forum. Globally, we have strengthened our commitment to professional/technical representation at ICAO panels and working groups. We are working through ICAO, with the Independent Society of Aviation Safety Investigators, to contribute to the development of Safety Management Systems. IFATCA should and will continue to champion the cause of safety in ATM. Our relationships with other international organisations continue to improve. We maintain a strong working relationship with Eurocontrol on various fronts, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and with the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) as an observer on the ITF ATS Committee. These latter two affiliations are very important, as we find ourselves becoming increasingly involved in ‘industrial’ matters. Our co-operation with the International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations (IFALPA) on both technical and professional issues remains on a solid footing. With IATA we have recently begun a series of meetings for the mutual benefit of both organisations. The same can be said for the service providers, with whom we have regular dialogue through CANSO. IFATCA has also created dedicated teams in order to follow up the huge work of the current implementation process established by the European Union on the Single European Sky Programme.

Concerns and the global ATM goal

As controllers, we have serious concerns and worries. We have worries about our future and about the future of our profession. We have worries about the closure of ATC centres, about unfair dismissals, about assassinations and about attacks on colleagues involved in aviation accidents and/or occurrences. We have made and will continue to make our concerns known to Presidents of countries, Director Generals of Civil Aviation Departments, Ministers of Transport and service providers as the situation warrants it. On a global level, we have submitted a detailed paper to the ICAO 11th ANC last September, describing our concerns and suggesting appropriate action. At a meeting of the industry held at ICAO in May 2003, IFATCA delivered a letter to Dr. Kotaite, President of the Council, outlining our position and once again calling for action. We should also not ignore the fact that our own concerns (along with those of others) have been addressed officially at the recently completed 35th Assembly of ICAO in Montreal. Air Traffic Control – is a vital part of the aviation system throughout the world. Workers in towers and en-route centres around the world, the backbone of our profession, operate in what is a very complex, highly linked system – called aviation. Some six million passengers use air transport each day in the USA alone. The 43 European Member States of ECAC have controlled 30 000 airplanes on a busy day, with only 13 per cent experiencing any delay. The average delay is close to the optimum performance target of one minute per flight. Truly a performance the system can be justifiably proud of. But to be efficient, a flight today has to be flying in a seamless manner in all of the airspace it flies through. What is the point, with today’s long range aircraft with their 14 or 18 hour legs, of avoiding looking at the difficult areas, because a tiny spot with problems might ruin the day and the profits. So everyone wants a safe and efficient airspace management system, not only regionally but globally. Then we should start investing in a seamless high quality ATM. IFATCA shares the concern that the next bottlenecks in global aviation will be the airports. In order to be able to give sufficient and timely input into the debate of how the current limits of airport operations in ATM could be improved, we have created a global airport team with our aerodrome ATM experts. We hope that their contribution will assist the aviation community to avoid what we consider at IFATCA to be the next big crisis to hit aviation. We have to remember that ATM is mostly people and is likely to remain so in the near future. So if we had a message to our masters it would be to follow the paradigm: your most valuable asset is your people. They are your lifeline to a safe and efficient system, treat them accordingly!

Marc Baumgartner

Marc Baumgartner is the President & CEO of the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers’ Associations (IFATCA) representing 40 000 ATCOs from 127 States around the globe. He has been employed by Skyguide for the last ten years as an Area Centre controller in Geneva ACC and is still working full-time as an ATCO there.