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Collision Risks as Australia Struggle With Airport Staff Shortages

Collision Risks as Australia Struggle With Airport Staff Shortages

BY HADI AHMAD Published on June 22, 2024 0 COMMENTS
Flight Radar | Darwin International Airport
Photo: Darwin International Airport


Industries around the world have been suffering from staff shortages since the pandemic. The travel sector, especially aviation, has experienced these struggles first-hand.


In Australia, a staff shortage among air traffic controllers has become a massive concern as many fear that the chances of a collision have risen.


Controller Shortage


A staff shortage at various Australian airport control towers is causing many concerns for pilots having to virtually "fly blind" at nighttime.




Airport Master Plan | Darwin International Airport
Photo: Darwin International Airport


Northern Australia's Darwin International Airport (DRW) now offers no air traffic control services at night. This means that around midnight every night, over a dozen flights must manage arrivals and departures without the assistance of controllers.


Townsville Airport (TSV) now does not offer a staffed control tower on weekends in Queensland. As such, pilots of around 50 flights had to coordinate their takeoffs and landings alone last Sunday, according to a report by Bloomberg.


Many air traffic control staff left the industry in Australia following the COVID-19 pandemic. Australia was one country that effectively shut its borders completely during the pandemic, significantly affecting its aviation industry.




Aviation | Darwin International Airport
Photo: Darwin International Airport


With international travel into Australia virtually nonexistent and the frequency of domestic flights already low, many air traffic controllers left their jobs.


Australia's Federal Transport Minister Catherine King reported in August 2023:

"We lost a lot of air traffic controllers. A lot of them took early redundancy because with the planes not flying, the work wasn't there, and the income wasn't coming in."


Even with travel recovering and Australia reopening, the country's air traffic controller situation has worsened.




Townsville Airport - Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia


Darwin Airport has 866 flights scheduled this month, representing the highest amount of flights that the airport has seen this year. This is a massive jump from 171 flights in May 2020, according to Cirium.


Increased Collision Risk


The controller shortage situation has gotten so bad that a Qantas pilot has admitted that a catastrophic incident "would not be surprising."


Tony Lucas, a senior Qantas pilot who is also President of the Australian and International Pilots Association (AIPA), noted that:


"Without air traffic control, the chance of errors by any one aircraft or pilot increases, and the ability to identify and correct those errors is dramatically reduced."




Central Queensland Plane Spotting: December 2013
Photo: Central Queensland Plane Spotting


In April, the AIPA issued a safety warning regarding a higher risk of mid-air collisions in some areas. 

However, regarding Darwin Airport, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority mentioned it was satisfied with arrangements between 10 pm and 6 am being safe for the anticipated traffic mix.


It is easy to understand why an air traffic controller shortage is so problematic. If you are the pilot of an aircraft, there is little you can see around you.


As the pilot, your main priority is the safe control of the aircraft itself. However, you depend highly on air traffic controllers to safely guide your plane into the air or onto the ground.




Darwin International Airport (DRW/YPDN) | Arrivals, Departures & Routes |  Flightradar24
Photo: Flightradar24


This is because air traffic controllers can see your surroundings. They can notify you of any aircraft nearby or any abnormalities that could threaten your plane.


Not having such controllers adds much more stress to the pilots, who already have much to deal with.

Despite suffering from a massive shortage, Australia has recruited 100 new air traffic controllers since 2020, with over 70 more expected to join by the 2025 fiscal year.

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Hadi Ahmad
Lifelong aviation enthusiast raised in Central Illinois. 777 is the best plane BTW.

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