Here’s a lesson in negotiations from the other side of the world. Perhaps the fact that it is so far away will allow you to view it dispassionately. Perhaps that will allow us to learn somewhat easier. Perhaps not.

'Renegade' controllers leave pilots flying blind: air chief

”A GROUP of "renegade" air traffic controllers in Melbourne and Brisbane are deliberately closing air space, leaving pilots to fend for themselves on some of the nation's busiest air routes, according to the head of the agency that manages Australia's skies.

The chief executive of Airservices Australia, Greg Russell, said it appeared a massive increase in incidents in which air space sectors had suddenly been left with no air traffic control was linked to an industrial campaign for big wage rises. “

That’s a nice opening shot. Mr. Russell doesn’t accuse the union of anything -- just the “renegades.” I like how “the controllers” are closing the airspace. I would have thought that was a management function. As I said the other day, I don’t know of any other place that “closes” airspace. In America, we combine the airspace -- putting 2,3,4 or 5 sectors together -- and let one controller work it. We then limit the number of airplanes that can fly in that section to keep it manageable. Regardless, both options are management options. Controllers don’t close a sector or design the National Airspace System. Management does. But we all know that these are negotiations and the first casualty of war is the truth.

”Air traffic controllers won the right to unlimited sick leave in the 1990s and are required to give only two hours' notice of their unavailability to work. The rate of absenteeism among air traffic controllers is an average of more than 15 days a year - about three times the national average. “

This tactic is familiar to any American controller. Take a restriction of the job and make it seem like a benefit -- and use it as a weapon. Controllers aren’t allowed to work when medicated. All of those medications that say “May Cause Drowsiness” on the label ? You don’t get to use those while you’re working airplanes. No one wants their aircraft being handled by a guy that “thinks” he is well enough to work. They want the guy that “knows” he is well.

Of course, most of the world’s population has never had to think about the possibility of making a mistake, killing a few hundred people and living with it. To most of the world, working with a cold is simply a fact of life. It shows you’re tough and dedicated to your job. If your nose is clogged up and it makes you sound like Elmer Fudd it’s no big deal. Most people aren’t air traffic controllers. That is what makes it such an effective weapon.

”Mr Russell has refused until now to criticise air traffic controllers or to link their industrial campaign to the spike in uncontrolled sectors.

However, the controllers' certified industrial agreement expires on December 21 and while their union has not yet made a formal log of claims, it has issued a "vision statement" that calls for pay rises ranging from about 30% to 64%.“

Why, those lousy, greedy union bums. Wait a minute -- I’m supposed to be viewing this dispassionately. Besides, it’s not my taxes paying for it. Right ?

Be honest now. Let’s see a show of hands. How many American controllers thought of Marion Blakey when they read that quote ? Just as a note of caution to the Australian controllers; the next thing you know, Mr. Russell will be telling the public you make some outlandish salary. He’ll find the controller that made the most money last year -- ironically, the guy that does answer the phone and does work the overtime and does come to work sick -- and Mr. Russell will add in every single (inflated) “cost” he can think of to make it seem like you make more money than the Prime Minister.

See how easy it is to make readers forget that any pay raises mentioned are just a negotiating position ? What is Airservices Australia’s negotiating position ? What’s their offer ? Funny, the article doesn’t mention that.

The truth is, Airservices Australia doesn’t really have to negotiate. They’ve got the airlines in their pocket, they’ve got the Government backing them up and -- evidently -- they’ve got at least some of the Press on their side too. Isn’t “corporatization” a marvelous tool ? All of the benefits of a business with none of the accountability.

If the Government decides to finish the job and sell off the air traffic control system, maybe they’ll sell it to some sovereign wealth fund from the Middle East. Personally, I think it would be a whole lot easier for the Australian people to pay their controllers enough money to keep them from moving to the Middle East and causing controller shortages at home. But that’s just me.

Don Brown
July 28, 2008


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