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Pilots want more guidance on uncontrolled air -

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Pilots want more guidance on uncontrolled airspace

The World Today - Monday, 7 July , 2008 12:30:00

Reporter: Simon Lauder

EMMA ALBERICI: Airline pilots were left to their own devices in the skies around Canberra last
night with no assistance from air traffic controllers

Last week, a shortage of air traffic controllers also affected flights in parts of Queensland and
northern New South Wales.

The group representing pilots says it's "disconcerting" and means pilots are unfairly left with a
decision on whether to shoulder the extra risk of flying through uncontrolled airspace.

The Pilots' Association wants the safety authority to take a more active role to solve the worrying
staff shortages.

Simon Lauder reports.

SIMON LAUDER: For two hours last night, it was up to pilots and pilots alone to steer clear of each
other in the skies north-west of Canberra.

The night shift at air traffic control was struck down by illness and backup staff weren't
available. Pilots and airlines flying from Melbourne to Sydney were told they had to navigate
themselves or avoid the area.

It's the latest illustration of the shortage of air traffic controllers in Australia, but the
president of the Australian and International Pilots' Association, Captain Ian Woods, says a
shortage near Perth recently was more serious.

IAN WOODS: The one in Perth is the most disconcerting because that's where the highest density of
traffic is. When it's in areas where aeroplanes are cruising then it's reasonable for the pilots to
be able to separate themselves and rely on the onboard collision avoidance system.

But obviously when aeroplanes are changing levels and coming into land or take off, that's when it
becomes serious.

The aeroplanes are closing potentially at 16 miles a minute and people familiar with lets say the
ability of pilots to spot a collision before it happens at 30,000 feet is known to be exceedingly
small, it's simply too big an ask.

SIMON LAUDER: QANTAS decided last night to divert its flights around the uncontrolled airspace,
rather than rely on solely on cockpit instruments and radio. Captain Woods says that decision
should be made by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, not individual airlines.

IAN WOODS: CASA is letting the industry down and putting the pilots in a position which they don't
have or necessarily have all the relevant information. Clearly CASA ought to either determine
whether it's safe or it's unsafe.

All we say is that until the risk analysis is done, then we would say that, you know, that CASA is
shirking its responsibilities.

SIMON LAUDER: CASA spokesman, Peter Gibson, says there's a shortage of 19 air traffic controllers
in Australia, and the current arrangement during shortfalls is safe.

PETER GIBSON: We believe the safest and best way to manage this when airspace has to have air
traffic control services removed, is to allow the pilots and the airlines to work out the most
appropriate response.

Sometimes that will be to fly through the airspace if there's no other way around it, sometimes
that will be to flight plan around it.

If we come in over the top and make a unilateral decision, we will remove all the flexibility of
the operational people, the airlines and their pilots to be able to make the best safety judgements
on the ground on that day.

SIMON LAUDER: So you certainly don't think there's any safety risks involved in pilots making the
call themselves?

PETER GIBSON: The pilots themselves are fully trained on procedures to use when they don't have air
traffic control facilities available. They know what to do, their aircraft equipped with collision
warning systems so that they're alerted if they come too close to another aircraft, and on top of
that most aircraft in fact have been able in these situations to actually fly around the airspace
that is not being controlled at the time.

So the risks to safety are being managed. There certainly has been a risk management approach taken
by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority to this issue.

EMMA ALBERICI: Peter Gibson from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, speaking there to Simon
Lauder.