Many NZ air traffic controllers performing roles without certainty of toilet breaks, union tells Select Committee

Many air traffic controllers (ATCs) in New Zealand are completing shifts without the certainty of a regular toilet break, the union representing them has told the Education and Workforce Select Committee today.

The New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association (NZALPA) represents nearly every air traffic controller in the country and said changes to the proposed Employment Relations Amendment Bill (ERA Bill) were "safety-critical" to allow air traffic control staff a break, the Select Committee has heard.

The NZALPA said proposed legislation could require air traffic controllers to work without any breaks for up to 9.5 hours.

NZALPA President and international airline pilot Tim Robinson said that air traffic is widely recognised as one of the most stressful occupations in the world with the highest need for mental alertness and restricting the ability for air traffic controllers from having "normal" breaks like other workers is irresponsible and unsafe.

He said the lack of breaks could lead to a serious incident or accident.

"Many ATCs, particularly those based at regional airports, are often solo controllers working the shift by themselves. This means that they have the sole duty to ensure that the aerodrome and surrounding airspace remains safe," Mr Robinson said. 

"While many of these regional airports would seem to have relatively low levels of aircraft movement, ATC's must maintain continuous visual watch throughout the duration of their shift, and often have to respond to unexpected and sometimes urgent situations involving the safety of aircraft."

The proposed ERA Bill excludes those employed in "essential service", including air traffic controllers, from mandatory meal and rest breaks.

The proposed ERA Bill reflects the wording of the current legislation, NZALPA is calling for it to be amended to allow ATCs the same meal and rest breaks as other workers.

NZAPLPA pressed the Select Committee to consider the safety impacts of excluding air traffic controllers from mandatory breaks.

"In many comparable jurisdictions such as Canada, every control tower is routinely staffed by more than one person.  In many countries in the European Union it is a legal requirement to have more than one person on duty following fatal accidents in the past."

"Does New Zealand have to wait for a major accident to occur in order to highlight the need for proper rest and meal breaks to be legislated?" Mr Robinson asked.  

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