French air traffic controllers take too much time off and risk safety

Unjustified leave requests are authorised to avoid strikes according to accident investigation body report

Following a near-miss at Bordeaux airport, the BEA has called for compulsory electronic clocking-in of air traffic controllers at work
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An alarming level of air traffic controller absences during holiday periods is threatening airport safety, a hard-hitting report from the accident investigation body BEA claims.

The issue has long been a concern in France. It was first raised in a report by the Cour des comptes, a judicial body overlooking government spending, in 2002, but nothing was done to improve the situation.

Now, following a near-miss in Bordeaux, the BEA has called for compulsory electronic clocking-in of air traffic controllers at work.

Read more: EasyJet Gatwick flight narrowly avoided crash at Bordeaux, says report

Three instead of six controllers working during Bordeaux near-miss

Matters came to a head at Bordeaux airport on the morning of December 31, 2022, when, instead of six air traffic controllers on duty, there were only two working and one who had just come back from a toilet break.

A controller forgot about a Robin light aircraft, with a pilot and his nine-year-old son on board, that he had ordered to wait on the runway before take-off.

He told the crew of an easyJet Airbus A320 flying in from Gatwick airport near London that they were cleared to land.

There were 179 passengers and six crew on the easyJet flight.

It was only when the pilot of the Robin, who had no idea how close the easyJet aircraft was to landing, asked if it was safe to take off that the air traffic controller realised his mistake and told the easyJet pilot to do an emergency go-around.

It passed just over the Robin with airport security cameras able to photograph the incident.

The pilot, who was a member of the airport flying club, says he heard the roar of the Airbus above the noise of his own engine and through his radio headset.

Image: A near-miss at Bordeaux airport in December 2022 was blamed on control tower absences; Credit: Photo: BEA

Holiday had been authorised for three missing controllers

In its report, the BEA said the local control tower managers, who are employed by the government and do not answer to airport management, had authorised the three missing controllers to take the day off for an extended New Year holiday.

Such arrangements are common in all airports in France, and make it impossible to exert control over the number of air traffic controllers at work, the report said.

It recommended that the government introduce a system of electronic clocking on and off for air traffic controllers, so that senior managers can be alerted immediately if towers are understaffed.

Managers let controllers take leave to avoid strikes

The report also revealed that after the near-miss at Bordeaux, the government agency responsible for civil aviation, the DSNA, carried out spot checks on air traffic control towers all around France during the Easter holiday period.

They found that 12% of controllers who were meant to be at work were not, and that 13% of controllers were present for less than half a shift – again due to local managers letting employees take leave outside of any legal framework.

It said the practice had become institutionalised “to keep social peace” – in other words, to prevent strikes.

Read more: Regional French airports under threat as auditors question value

Bordeaux controllers had worked half the required hours

Air traffic controllers are among the best-paid civil service workers in France, with average wages of €121,900 a year, according to the site Jobted, which gives information on salaries in most industries.

The BEA report said that air traffic controllers are meant to work in the tower for 984 hours a year.

They are paid for 1,413 hours of work – the difference made up with training, meetings, and breaks away from the control tower.

At the time of the Bordeaux incident, which fell on the last day of the year, the chief of the control tower had registered 527 hours for the year, while the other controller working had registered 598 hours.

Six weeks after the BEA report was published, there is little sign that its recommendation for clocking on and off has been implemented.

Bordeaux airport refused to comment on the incident.

Report points to ‘unjustified absences’

Requests for a reaction from the Ministry for Ecology, which is responsible for air safety in France, were ignored and the main union for air traffic controllers, SNCTA, also declined to comment on the report.

The BEA report noted that a similar incident took place in 2013, when a private jet was cleared to take off on a closed runway by a controller working in a half-staffed tower.

Also in 2013, a number of incidents at Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris, where aircraft had come too close to each other, were blamed on control towers being understaffed.

In 2014, the European agency for air safety, AESA, complained that it was impossible to verify the qualifications of French air traffic controllers, because some seemed to do so little work.

A fourth report into the matter by the Cour des comptes in 2021 pointed to “unjustified absences” running at between 25% and 30%.

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