Air traffic chief says SA skies are safe

South Africa’s air space was safe despite a shortage of air traffic controllers, MPs were told on Wednesday.

“We believe it is in hand. It’s not unsafe,” Dr Johan van Vollenhoven, the MD of the government-owned Air Traffic and Navigation Systems (ATNS), told the National Assembly’s transport committee.

Van Vollenhoven also warned MPs that pay channel M-Net had picked up on news reports about the shortage and it was feared that Carte Blanche would make a “sensational programme”.

“It’s not unsafe and we will continue to fix it,” Van Vollenhoven said.

ATNS continued to lose controllers to lucrative overseas markets, especially in the Middle East where salaries were dollar-based. The company was trying to ensure there was enough recruits in the system, although it took four to five years to train a radar controller, he said.

There were 200 controllers countrywide, 20 up from last year.
The shortage was at Johannesburg International Airport which dealt with the most traffic, Van Vollenhoven said. ATNS had a 10% shortage of traffic controllers countrywide.

Over the last three-and-a-half years 150 cadets had been recruited, of which 16 would come through the system in the next two months as fully-fledged controllers, and a further 38 by September this year, he said.

“We will then hopefully get stability. We will never run unsafe skies. We will never run our controllers outside their hours of duty.”

South Africa had experienced very flat traffic growth in 2000 and 2001, although this had increased by six percent in 2002 and nine percent this year.

“Over and above this in the last two months because of the (cricket) world cup we are running at 15 percent year on year. Our skies are busier and Johannesburg international specifically is running at absolute full capacity.”

Van Vollenhoven said during peak periods in Johannesburg “we are currently tight in staff, but it is not unsafe”.

While some delays were being caused, ATNS was working with major airlines, to manage the problem as best it could. Although airlines blamed ATNS for 30% of delays, the company believed it was less than this.

Van Vollenhoven said a R500-million new air traffic control system would come into operation at Johannesburg international in November this year, which would help alleviate the problem.

While South African air traffic controllers were trained on the new system, controllers from Australia and Europe would fill in. Once the new system was implemented “we will not have a controller situation anymore of any concern”.

The Sunday Times reported recently that a shortage of air traffic controllers at Johannesburg International Airport was costing domestic airlines millions of rands a month and wreaking havoc with flight schedules. - Sapa

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