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increased risk Irish air traffic control 'in crisis', as staff call for Transport Minister to investigate

Increased risk of accidents due to an over-reliance on overtime, controllers say


Stock image. Picture by Bloomberg

Stock image. Picture by Bloomberg

Stock image. Picture by Bloomberg

Irish air traffic controllers have claimed the system is in crisis and that staffing issues have led to an “increased risk of an air traffic incident or accident”.

In an incendiary letter sent last week by up to 160 controllers to Transport Minister Eamon Ryan, the controllers claimed that over-reliance on overtime to run the service had become a safety issue.

The crisis meant that “continuity of the provision of Air Traffic Control service can no longer be guaranteed”, wrote the controllers.

Many controllers have refused to sign up to a voluntary call-in overtime scheme used to cover short gaps in the roster. The letter claimed both Cork and Shannon airports had closed for a period in July, while closure at Dublin had been narrowly averted in August.

The Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) said in a statement to the Sunday Independent that it had “provided an update to the Transport Minister outlining the factual position on the matters raised and refuting the allegations in their entirety”.

The company “operates to the highest safety standards. At no point has this safety ever been compromised and there has been no risk to ATC services over the last year”, it said.

But the controllers claimed there had been occasions where “vulnerable people may have been identified, targeted, isolated, reassigned, dismissed or resigned under unusual circumstances”, and they called on the Transport Minister to launch an investigation.

“Of greatest concern is the apparent death by suicide of one recently retired member of staff. Colleagues and I were horrified when one of our former colleagues went missing. I believe that this person may have made a protected disclosure to the Department of Transport before leaving the IAA on an unusual early retirement,” the letter claimed.

The remains of the female former employee had been found in the sea after she went missing last year.

She had previously worked in the IAA’s mapping department, which had been at the centre of a media storm after it was revealed that maps used by the crew of tragic helicopter Rescue 116 had contained incorrect details.

The controllers called on Mr Ryan to launch an investigation into IAA’s refusal to allow a control centre supervisor who had suffered from mental health issues after what he claimed were years of stress and workplace bullying to return to work.

The semi-state company had sacked the man and reported him to An Garda Síochána after he was traced as the sender of an anonymous postcard describing two managerial colleagues as “incompetent w*****s”.

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He had told a disciplinary hearing how he had attempted suicide twice including on the day in April 2019 he sent the postcard and that he had subsequently spent nine weeks in St Patrick’s Hospital. But in a letter sacking the man seven months later, the senior IAA manager who led the disciplinary process said he was “not convinced that the mitigation of mental health issues justifies your actions”.

Following his sacking, air traffic controllers refused for a time to co-operate with a call-in overtime scheme on which the entire system is now dependent. This meant that at least four Dublin-bound transatlantic flights were told to enter an unusual holding pattern for a time over Co Westmeath.

An independent appeal board led by former Labour Court chairman Kevin Duffy later overturned his sacking, saying the investigation was procedurally flawed, the dismissal was disproportionate and sufficient account had not been taken of a number of mitigating factors. The employee has since passed medical examinations but has not yet been allowed back to work by the company.

In a follow-up statement, the IAA said it had been losing €375,000 per day during Covid-19.

“However, our commitment has been safety of Irish airspace and safety of our staff. We have kept the skies open and safe. We instituted a cost containment programme which resulted in no one losing their jobs (unlike many others in the sector) with a max 10pc pay reduction.

"This unofficial action by a small number of staff does not help and they are urged to use the proper industrial relations channels to have the issues dealt with,” said the IAA statement.

MrRyan is expected to face questions in the Dáil this week from a number of opposition TDs about the contents of the letter and the mounting crisis at the state’s air traffic control operator.

A statement from a Department of Transport spokesperson said: “The minister has recently received correspondence from individual air traffic controllers outlining their concerns in relation to certain workplace practices within the IAA.

"In light of this correspondence, briefing was sought and received from the IAA on the matters raised, and on the unofficial industrial action which in recent months has resulted in temporary staff shortages at State airports.

"The IAA has stated that at no point has the safety of air traffic control services been compromised, and that it complies with stringent safety regulatory procedures and fatigue management requirements.

"It is important that the parties engage on the concerns raised through established dispute resolution mechanisms and processes.”

A trade union representative said that describing the refusal by many controllers to sign up to a voluntary overtime scheme as “unofficial industrial action” was likely to further inflame tensions.

“Obviously the minister has failed to grasp the serious nature of the situation,” said the trade union representative.

"Perhaps his opinion will change when airports are closing on a regular basis.”  

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