Trade union claims ATNS puts race ahead of safety


When professionalism and safety are not the primary considerations in air traffic control, the public’s safety is jeopardised, trade union Solidarity cautioned.

This comes after Air Traffic and Navigation Services (ATNS) apparently falsely accused two of its managers of racism and suspended them.

The charges of racism relate to separate incidents where air traffic controllers jeopardised air safety by inappropriate air traffic instructions. In the subsequent inquiries, carried out by two Solidarity members at ATNS, Johnny Smit (manager of air traffic controllers) and Leon Altree (acting operational manager), disciplinary action against four air traffic controllers was recommended. Instead of instituting the recommended disciplinary action against the air traffic controllers, ATNS charged Smith and Altree with racism and suspended them.

Piet le Roux, spokesperson for Solidarity, said that the managers concerned are white and the air traffic controllers, who violated air safety rules, are black should not play a role. “Turning the matter into a racial issue is an injustice to our members. What’s more, the public’s safety is put at risk when serious violations are ignored.”

Smit and Altree’s disciplinary hearings started last month and will continue at the end of November. One of the charges, in respect of which evidence has been led, relates to an incident at OR Tambo International Airport in June 2013. In this incident, the air traffic controller almost caused a fatal plane crash by giving a Boeing 777-200 of an international airline permission to take off and allowing a smaller plane to land on the same runway at the same time.

To make matters worse, it is clear from the sound recording of the incident that the air traffic controller, after issuing the conflicting instructions, became aware his instructions would lead to an accident, but kept quiet instead of taking emergency measures. A potential accident and loss of life were avoided at the last minute when the pilot of the smaller airplane broke off the landing with a risky evasive manoeuvre.

The incident was rated as a class A2 incident, just two levels below the most serious incident on the ranking of aviation incidents – where the most serious incident is a full scale plane crash. Owing to the seriousness of the incident and the fact that the same air traffic controller had made serious mistakes in the past, Smit and Altree recommended disciplinary steps be taken against him.

Dana Viljoen, who is assisting the members in their hearings on behalf of Solidarity, rejects ATNS’s allegation that Altree and Smit apply a double standard with respect to white and black air traffic controllers.
“ATNS claims our members are racist because they made different recommendations regarding violations in which white and black air traffic controllers were involved, but ignores the difference in the nature and seriousness of the respective violations.”

According to Viljoen, ATNS claims remedial training instead of disciplinary action recommended after a white, female air traffic controller made a considerably less serious mistake proves the Solidarity members’ racism.
“ATNS makes this allegation, even though the incident was rated a class B2 incident, five places lower on the scale of seriousness than the A2 incident. The air traffic controller concerned rectified the mistake immediately according to standard procedure and did not leave it up to the pilots,” said Viljoen.

He maintains the disciplinary processes against Smit and Altree are procedurally irregular. “In what is supposed to be simply charge sheets, the members are already found guilty of racism. Moreover, in the charge sheets they are charged by the company itself instead of aggrieved colleagues.”