Airservices is supposed be about safety, not about being a business. No?

Today’s troubling report about the safety of air traffic control in Australia on ABC News is definitely not just another union inspired story warning that job losses in this or that public service will end in a disastrous loss of life.

In this case the jobs, at Airservices Australia, are gone. They aren’t coming back. The omlette can’t be unscrambled.

‘Our jobs or your life’ became a worn out cliche riddled art form trotted out by organised labour and media before anyone alive today was born when modernisation began to threaten guard’s van on trains and signals were levered into position by physical force.

If any of the inspirations for the ABC story are actively involved in safely keeping aircraft apart then air travellers have every reason to be worried about their being sufficiently alert or ‘agile’ to perform such tasks.

But this isn’t the case. Most of the jobs that were lost were in administration, and were regarded as parasitic or superfluous to the core task of stopping the flight you may about to board this morning from coming too close to another flight at various stages of their respective intercity trips.

The legitimate concern, however well or poorly based, is whether or not the loss of back office jobs as Airservices Australia calls them, has adversely affected safety.

There was a period earlier this century when the safety investigator, the ATSB, seemed to be struggling to keep up with ‘separation incidents’ in which it identified controller fatigue and even a lack of proper training as factors in jets receiving transponder triggered TCAS potential collision warnings.

Such incidents continue to occur, there was one involving two Qantas aircraft in the vicinity of Brisbane airport recently, and there continue to be incidents which occur outside actively monitored airspace which also raise important questions about the design of airspace boundaries and the practices they involve in this country.

But the official response has for some time been that the actual incidence of proximity events in Australian airspace is no longer statistically different to the situation in busy air traffic corridors covered by similar ATC technology elsewhere in the world.

This is difficult terrain for the media to navigate, which the ABC story carefully and fairly covers.  There are continuing problems in Australian airspace, it is possible that progress has been made, and as Senator Xenophon has identified in the past, some of those screw ups should never, ever have been allowed to occur, and need to be prevented from happening in the future.

The whole issue of air traffic control safety is rendered opaque by government indifference, as in this government, and its Labor predecessors. In Government eyes, Airservices Australia is a fee collecting revenue raising entity supposedly run along private industry lines.

It has never been possible to get a sensible engagement with the safety issues of ATC control from any Coalition or Labor minister since AirServices Australia began to operate as a commercial entity measured solely by its contribution to the Federal Budget. It is doubtful that any minister this century possessed even the most basic of understanding of how air traffic control works, and where changes in technology will take it (perhaps) beyond the crap that appears in press releases directed by Mandarins.

The inherent problem with the supremacy of management over old fashioned and highly inconvenient safety cultures is that management will screw down and stress the human resources of bodies like AirServices Australia until ‘something’ breaks.

That ‘something’ could end up in a stinking pile of body bags and shattered airliner parts, and wipe out a few high profile CEOs, a sporting team or two, and a few dozens of working class punters, and maybe even cause a few by-elections.

There is a serious lack of Executive oversight of safety outcomes in Australian aviation, and for that matter, road haulage, and one day, as people like Senator Xenophon have often pointed out, it might bite all of us very badly.

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