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Irish air traffic controllers warn of 'disruption' to air travel in letter to minister

The air traffic controllers have raised safety concerns around rostering.

Image: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

A GROUP OF air traffic controllers has written directly to Government to raise concerns of disruption and safety in Irish airspace.  

The claims, which were sent in an emailed letter and not communicated via a trade union, include allegations around the safety of the air traffic control system in Irish airspace. They allege the problems have been caused by rostering issues and understaffing. 

In a statement the Irish Aviation Authority has refuted the allegations and appealed to the workforce to engage with the industrial relations mechanisms available. 

In the letter, seen by The Journal, the controllers level a number of claims at the management of the agency, which is currently undergoing a break up by Government. 

The letter documents makes a litany of claims including:

  • An alleged lack of air traffic control (ATC) services at airports, which it’s claimed prompting temporary shutdowns of ATC at Cork and Shannon in July. 
  • According to the claims, a similar temporary closure at Dublin Airport was narrowly averted in early August. 
  • Safety concerns have been raised as hard pressed controllers are placed on rosters “under protest and duress”.
  • They have called for the replacement of the IAA management board. 

Sources said that 40% of the country’s 300 Air Traffic Controllers had backed the letter, copies of which had been sent to TDs and directly to the Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan.

As previously reported by this publication, industrial relations concerns have been raised by the workforce in recent months. 

Break-up

The IAA is responsible for the management of Irish-controlled airspace, the safety regulation of Irish civil aviation and the oversight of civil aviation security in Ireland.

But under a Government directive the regulatory function must be separated from the business side, which provides commercial air navigation services.

In August Fórsa, the IAA and the Department of Transport all said that they were working through the process of this separation.

But the letter raised concerns about how discussions were being carried out.

The air controllers raise concerns that rostering problems mean air traffic at airports has been come under increased pressure. The IAA, in its statement to The Journal, did not address this directly but appealed to all the workforce to engage with industrial relations mechanisms to air their grievances. 

According to the letter from the controllers: “As you are aware on a number of occasions an Air Traffic Control service was not available at State Airports due to a lack of Air Traffic Controllers. Cork Airport closed for a period on the 25th July and Shannon Airport on the 26th July.

“The closure of Dublin Airport on the 6th of August was narrowly averted thanks to the actions of the ATC Branch committee.”

The IAA did not respond directly to queries about the closures mentioned in the letter. 

Safety

Serious safety concerns were also raised.

The letter referred to “numerous recent incidents where Air Traffic Controllers are having their rostered duties changed on extremely short notice to cover staff shortages, effectively forcing ATCOs into working positions under protest and duress without any regard for the fatigue such changes cause”.

“I request that such events be investigated by the Air Navigation Safety Division,” the letter said, referring to an IAA oversight body. 

The air traffic controllers have said that the rostering issues and staff shortfalls have greatly affected morale.

“Unfortunately it seems to be the case that relations within the IAA have reached an all time low.”

The letter states: “The business model of the IAA requires all ATCOs to participate in an overtime scheme. Originally designed to cover unforeseen staff shortages, the call-in scheme now is used to fill gaps on the roster due to illness absence, regulatory training or project requirements and annual leave.”

In response to a query, Fórsa – which officially represents the controllers – said it had lobbied repeatedly to solve the problem of an over-reliance on overtime. 

Disruption

The letter states that unless the problems raised are addressed there will be a “disruption of the delivery of an Air Traffic Control service for the State”.

The letter claimed that some controllers were actively seeking alternative employment. 

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The letter concludes with a plea to Minister Ryan to intervene. 

“My union has communicated with you and your Department officials on many occasions. However there has not been a resolution to the multiple issues as yet.

“It is hard to believe that a group of professionals who have adhered to the best practices of industrial relations and social representation through Dáil Eireann find themselves abandoned.”

Plea for mediation

The IAA said in a statement that it is aware of the letter sent to public representatives “by a number of Air Traffic Control Officers relating to industrial relations matters between the Company and its recognised staff representative bodies”.  

“As such, the IAA has provided an update to the Minister for Transport outlining the factual position on the matters raised and refuting the allegations in their entirety.

“The IAA has a long-established industrial relations framework within the Company, which these staff and their representatives should now re-engage with to discuss and resolve these issues,” the statement read. 

It said its industrial relations mechanisms includes an Internal Dispute Resolution Board (IDRB). It said that “any staff issues or concerns” can only be dealt with through the agreed industrial relations framework.

“The priority of the IAA and all its staff is safety. This is recognised by international observers who regard the IAA as one of the top air navigation service providers globally and a consistent high performer with regard to compliance with safety standards,” it said. 

“We invite those workers who have raised issues to re-engage with the independent disputes resolution process and to work constructively with the Company to find a solution that is satisfactory for staff and the Company and allows us to get on with the important process of rebuilding Irish aviation.”

A Department of Transport spokesperson said the matters raised in the letter were a matter for the IAA and that it would not be commenting. 

Fórsa said it was aware that letters had been sent to TDs by IAA employees.  

The union said that it does not endorse the call made in the letter for the replacement of the IAA management team but added:

“Fórsa is, however, concerned at the lack of manpower planning in the authority, and has made repeated representations to IAA management about its over-dependence on overtime and on-call arrangements, and on the need to train and employ significant additional numbers of air traffic controllers and related staff”.  

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