Virgin Blue has always been good at publicity stunts, but its bill to AirServices Australia for half a million dollars because it couldn’t deliver full air traffic control at Sydney Airport last Friday is not a joke.

The Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese, has been told by all of the major airlines that the only joke is that Australia is no longer reliably providing the controlled separation of airliners considered an essential part of air travel throughout the developed world and most of the rest of it as well.

Australia has a modern air traffic control system which its management has failed to maintain through a lack of staff caused by better pay and conditions abroad and inadequate provision for the training of replacement controllers as those that remain in the country reach retirement or chuck it in.

There is no wriggle room in this. Managing the human resources of the air traffic control system is the responsibility of management, and it has failed. The airlines are telling the minister it has failed.

If on current indications the sort of stuff up that caused chaos at Sydney can cost the major carriers around $2.5 million dollars a day, and Airservices Australia can no longer charge them the en route fees that made it an operating profit of $106 million in the year to June 30, 2007, the bill for this failure is of serious concern.

That there are negotiations underway for a new pay agreement with the controllers is hardly an excuse for the system to teeter on the edge of collapse. Or a government to prevaricate. The shortage of controllers will take between four and five years to overcome if two things happen in terms of better terms and conditions and appropriate training.

This was obvious before the change of government. Yet the lack of action means the solution has been delayed at least by the best part of a year. Just what calibre of advice has the minister been getting?

Any day now the minister should receive the annual report of AirServices Australia which will reveal other misfortunes. The cross border financial facility which the previous management of AirServices Australia locked down four years ago has liabilities which could be triggered by a number of ‘unlikely’ circumstances.

They have been triggered at least partially by the US financial crisis. A rumored $300 million of public funds is at risk in the guarantees attached to this facility. All may be revealed when the annual report is tabled by the Minister in the near future.

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