"To ignore the fact fatigue is impacting safety, you can't. It is absolutely affecting safety." Photo: Supplied
Military air traffic controllers fear the long hours they spend in front of consoles and having to carry out other jobs while they are supposed to be resting is increasing fatigue to a level that compromises safety.
After a report critical of the relatively high number of planes flying too close to each other in military-controlled air space, two former RAAF air traffic controllers have spoken out about the heavy workload and high staff turnover that have led to a lack of experienced personnel.
The controllers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, highlighted the limitations of the military's ageing air traffic control system, which on several occasions at Williamtown in Newcastle this year has had to be shut down and restarted.
In response to questions, the Defence Department confirmed the system was shut down for two days at Williamtown this year due to water entering communications cables after heavy rain. It said the RAAF stopped flying at the airport while the system was down and the airlines were informed. Military controllers manage both airline and RAAF aircraft at Williamtown.
''The civilian airliners are still getting a service, but to ignore the fact fatigue is impacting the level of safety, you can't. It is absolutely affecting safety,'' one controller said.
Defence confirmed that ''system degradation'' caused a reduction in air traffic services on two other occasions this year but insisted it had ''no impact'' on safety.
Fairfax Media has been told controllers have sometimes had to work another 10-hour shift just 10 hours after their last one ended.
Civilian controllers work eight-hour shifts, but spend two hours in front of consoles directing planes, compared with up to four hours in the RAAF.
''When it gets busy, that is very, very fatiguing,'' a controller said. ''The peaks and troughs of the traffic come with the air combat group flying. As soon as the military fly, it can get very challenging, particularly when you are mixing it with civilian flying because you have such vastly different aircraft performance.''
Airservices Australia monitors the bulk of the country's airspace, but the Defence Department oversees both civilian and military aircraft in airspace at Newcastle, Townsville and Darwin. Williamtown is shared by the RAAF and airlines including Virgin Australia, Jetstar and Regional Express.
On top of the time spent in front of consoles, RAAF controllers often have to carry out secondary duties during their official breaks.
''That would never happen on the civilian side of the street,'' the former controller said. ''Experience levels are quite low within the military ranks in general, even before adding to the fatigue issues and poor safety culture.''
The Defence Department said it has a shortage of controllers, but said flying schedules and rosters were ''synchronised to ensure aviation safety is maintained''.