Mode Aviation
Reference No. AR202000034
Date reported 21 May 2020
Concern title Reduction of ATC staff leading to increased workload
Concern summary

Reported concern regarding staffing levels and hours of coverage at the Gold Coast Tower.

Industry / Operation affected Aviation: Airspace management
Concern subject type Aviation: Air Traffic Control

Reporter's concern

The reporter states that Airservices has substantially reduced both the number of controllers, and the opening hours of the tower. The reporter advises that many staff have been compelled to take leave, resulting in the number of full performance (endorsed) controller staff rostered over the course of the day reduced from five to two.

While the reporter acknowledges the need to reduce operating costs due to reduced revenue, following a reduction in RPT traffic associated with COVID-19, the reporter is concerned that this decision has been made without appropriate risk assessment, and without proper consideration for the workload of the controllers. The reporter states that while there has been a substantial reduction in RPT movements, the Gold Coast remains a busy training airport. There are three fixed wing and one rotary wing flying schools whose activities have not reduced, along with overflights and other visiting training aircraft. The experience of the controllers is that workload remains relatively high.

The reporter advises that Airservices does not currently have an accurate method of recording actual aircraft movements at the Gold Coast, and are relying on a record of movements that does not capture circuits, overflights or plans submitted by radio. This represents a substantial proportion of the workload of the controllers and the risk assessment has relied on figures that are grossly inaccurate. For example, Airservices figures suggest approximately 90 movements a day, but a running record kept by ATC recorded over 300 movements on 19 May 2020.

The reporter states that no operational advice was sought prior to the change, and when concerns have since been raised, they appear to have been ignored. The phrase "these are unprecedented times" has been repeatedly offered to explain what appears to be deviation from accepted operational norms.

The reporter believes that this change is being driven by financial concerns, rather than safety or service obligations; and is exacerbated by newly-appointed and inexperienced management staff, some of whom have no previous ATC experience. The reporter is concerned that proper safety management is being swept aside in an unseemly haste to reduce costs.

Operator's response (Operator 1)

As a result of the COVID 19 pandemic, Gold Coast airport has experienced a significant reduction in Regular Public Transport (RPT) operations, currently processing around six RPT flights a week. However, unlike many other locations where we provide Air Traffic Services, this reduction has been offset by an increase in Visual Flight Rules (VFR) training flights. A review of the Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) and VFR aircraft data (including circuit traffic) for Gold Coast confirms airspace usage is at comparable levels with the same period in 2019. Tower staffing hours are predicated on expected movements, and as these training flights are occurring predominantly during daylight hours, reducing the tower hours of operation was considered an appropriate response to the current situation.

With COVID 19 preventative measures placing restrictions on operational ATC rosters, this variation to tower hours has enabled Airservices to better match the available workforce to industry demand. Additional workload and fatigue control measures, such as limiting circuit traffic, have been implemented to complement existing tactical traffic management procedures. We continue to enhance our data collection systems to better integrate VFR circuit traffic movements into the overall data picture. The safety change process has been reviewed, each planned temporary variation to tower hours was risk assessed in accordance with our Safety Management System prior to the change.

Regulator's response (Regulator 1)

In response to REPCON AR202000034 CASA conducted a scheduled Level 2 desktop surveillance audit of Gold Coast Tower in June 2020 and is satisfied with the level of safety and regulatory compliance for operations by Gold Coast tower during COVID19.

CASA noted that Airservices had amended their staffing and rostering arrangements at Gold Coast due to COVID-19. CASA was provided with a copy of the tower Hours Of Coverage change safety review and information relevant to comments in the REPCON.

Airservices Australia advised CASA that a roster change would be implemented from June 22, 2020 that would provide an additional shift each day. However, CASA is aware that the value of this additional shift may be limited if there is a lack of full performance (endorsed) controllers available.

The CASA surveillance report on Gold Coast Tower will be released to Airservices for comment before the end of July 2020.

Last update 10 November 2020