SAAF to help ATNS with air traffic control amid staff shortage

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The South African Air Force (SAAF) is to deploy Air Traffic Controllers (ATC) to civilian airports around South Africa due to a staff shortage at the State-owned Air Traffic and Navigation Services (ATNS) company.

The Chief of the Air Force, Lieutenant General Wiseman Mbambo and the Chief Executive Officer of ATNS, Ms Nozipho Mdawe signed a Master Cooperation Agreement on 19 July. At the time, the SAAF’s official magazine, Ad Astra, noted that the objective of the agreement was to formalise cooperation between the two entities.

“Both entities are desirous to develop a meaningful cooperation with an integrated approach that will ensure that harmonization of safe, expeditious and efficient ATM (Air Traffic Management) solutions and associated services are fully explored,” the magazine wrote.

ATNS said the agreement is intended to “facilitate cooperation by ensuring the provision of cost-effective and professional air traffic services and navigation infrastructure. This agreement was a review of the agreement signed by ATNS and DOD (on behalf of SAAF) in 2002/2003, which largely remains the same today. This Master Cooperation Agreement allows ATNS and the SAAF to work together in several pertinent areas of common interest, largely in the deployment of infrastructure, training, human resource sharing, and airspace management. Furthermore, ATNS and SAAF have standing workgroups that meet regularly. In such meetings, there are deliberations on a variety of issues, the subject of which remains strictly classified, and restricted.”

An internal memorandum from SAAF headquarters to the Chief Air Traffic Control Officers of its air force bases, seen by defenceWeb, communicated the latest developments regarding the strategic cooperation agreement as well as the subsequent new staffing opportunities that will become available to selected SAAF ATC officers.

“One of the exciting new ventures of this cooperation initiative involves the sharing of human resources and human resource development responsibilities,” the memorandum states. “As a result, a new ATNS/SAAF Joint HR Strategy is now in final stages of being accepted.”

“The Joint Strategy aims to establish a collaborative arrangement between ATNS and the SAAF for the deployment of SAAF ATC Officers at various ATNS ATSUs (Air Traffic Services Units). This arrangement aims to address staffing constraints currently faced by ATNS while simultaneously providing valuable traffic exposure and experience to SAAF ATC personnel,” the document explained.

Available positions include that of Aerodrome Control Officers (ATCO2) at Upington, Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth), King Shaka (Durban), Virginia (Durban), Rand (Germiston) and Bram Fischer (Bloemfontein) airports. Opportunities for Approach Control Officers (ATCO3) are at Polokwane and Kruger Mpumalanga airports.

ATNS told defenceWeb that Mdawe and Mbambo “have no knowledge of any other agreement that is in existence, that has provisions and or amendments, relating to SAAF assisting ATNS with ATC services,” and called the leaking or sharing of documents, especially those still under review, as “unwarranted and reckless”. ATNS deems such activities “serious criminal offenses under the South African Criminal Act.”

In a briefing to the Parliamentary Transport Portfolio Committee in March this year, ATNS acknowledged that there was a 10% shortage of ATCs, particularly at Johannesburg International Airport, with staff loses of approximately 10% per year.

It takes between four to four and a half years to train a new controller. A new system that is expected to alleviate the current staff pressures is due to go online in late 2023. The South African Advanced Air Traffic System (SAAATS) is designed to automate many processes, with sixteen overseas ATCs due to arrive in the country this year to allow South African ATCs the time necessary to train on the new system.

ATNS had previously recruited contract ATCs from Ireland, Britain, Uruguay and other SADC countries. It would appear that these plans are insufficient. Many retired ATNS employees have also commented that ATNS has been reluctant to re-employ South African ATCs that want to return from overseas.

Whilst the SAAF has traditionally undertaken Air Traffic Management training in house at the Air Space Control School, it has also made use of the ATNS Aviation Training Academy. In recent years, some SAAF students have also received Air Traffic Management training in Cuba and Russia.

A current SAAF ATC officer told defenceWeb, on condition of anonymity, that the SAAF is “slightly overstaffed” with ATCs. “They are finding it difficult to (re)train the new guys that received training in Cuba and Russia, especially with the decline in SAAF flying countrywide,” the officer added.

A recently retired ATC Specialist at ATNS remarked that it could “take very long” to get the newly deployed SAAF members operational: “Radar courses to be done, Area courses. Then the station training at a minimum of 200 hours per person, per position.”

The requirement for additional training and civilian qualification of military members selected for placement at ATNS control centres is recognised by the SAAF. The memorandum clarifies that ATNS will undertake vocational assessments and any bridging training deemed necessary before validating and utilizing that member at an ATNS ATSU for at least two years.

The specific licencing and qualifications required by ATNS and “who bears responsibility (when something goes wrong)” are other questions asked by pilots and former ATNS employees.

The first ATNS intake is planned to take place as soon as October 2023. The members will be placed under the administrative control and support of the nearest military base but will work within ATNS control environments on a daily basis. These members would also not be able to undertake any military courses or be available for military deployments.

ATNS provides air traffic, navigation, training and associated services within South Africa and a large part of the Southern Indian and Atlantic Ocean, comprising approximately 6% of the world’s airspace. ATNS operates from nine State-owned airports and 12 other aerodromes nationally.

* This article has been updated to reflect comment from ATNS.