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Air Traffic Controller Calls in Sick, Strands Thousands

Air Traffic Controller Calls in Sick, Strands Thousands
Jeff Edwards

An inopportune illness led an Australian air traffic controller to call in sick – soon the resulting staff shortage over a busy back-to-school travel period caused a cascade effect which led to the cancellation of more than 25 flights and delays that spread across the region leaving thousands of air travelers without a way home from break.

A single Sydney Airport (SYD) air traffic controller’s unexpected sick day wreaked havoc on air travel across the region over the busy back-to-school travel period on Sunday. Officials say that as many as 26 flights were cancelled outright with many more delayed as a result of the resulting staff shortage.

According to the Daily Telegraph, the under-the-weather controller’s absence caused ATC to place restrictions on the rate of takeoffs and landings at Australia’s busiest airport. Because a number of airlines had already added additional departures for the busy travel day, the delays and cancellations quickly mounted until the control tower was again staffed at full manpower later in the day. Qantas, JetStar, Virgin Australia and Tiger Air all reported canceled flights scheduled to depart from SYD on Sunday.

Qantas, which accounts for the majority of flights at SYD, told the newspaper that it was doing everything in its power to “get customers moving, but the reduced take off and landing rates meant we’ve had to cancel some flights. Some customers were moved to flights on Sunday evening but as it’s school holidays we have limited spare seats so others won’t travel until Monday.”

An airline spokesperson said that by Sunday afternoon operations at the airline’s primary hub had returned to normal. Unfortunately, by then, the damage had already been done with flight restrictions at SYD causing delays and cancellations at smaller airports across the region, leaving many thousands of passengers tardy in reporting to the first day of classes on Monday.

There is still no word on the nature of the illness that caused the controller to take the day off, but it seems likely that a doctor’s note excusing the absence might just be in order.


View Comments (9)


  1. the cranky banker

    October 9, 2018 at 8:28 am

    It’s plain unjust and probably illegal in some countries to disallow families in premium class cabins. Parents have the first responsibility in keeping their offspring from bothering others. If their efforts fail, I consider the cabin crew to have a strong obligation. If others pax complain about a loud video game, an FA should talk to a parent about quieting it. If a baby won’t stop crying, an FA should encourage the parents to make extra efforts to soothe the kid or, as often happens, to step in personally.

    As a long-time long-haul premium class flyer I always prepared for the worst and was grateful for any improvement over that. Bose now make in-ear noise-masking Sleep Buds soft enough for side-sleepers. I believe ithey continue to work even after your iPhone battery times out.

  2. jrpallante

    October 9, 2018 at 10:32 am

    If the absence of a single person causes such a disruption at a major airport, then SYD clearly needs to boost staffing levels. What if, instead of calling in sick, he quit his job? Would the disruptions continue for weeks or months while they recruit and train a replacement? In the overall budget of a large airport, the salary of an additional controller is negligible, so maybe they just need a backup available at all times. The real losses suffered in just one day would probably offset an extra ATC salary for the next decade.

  3. Mordor2112

    October 9, 2018 at 11:50 am

    This story makes no sense. SYD can’t spare ONE single ATC dude??

  4. The_Bouncer

    October 10, 2018 at 3:43 am

    If the absense of a single person for a single day causes this, they are obviously chronically and severely understaffed.

    Bottom line: this is just plain bad management.

  5. mvoight

    October 10, 2018 at 12:04 pm

    Cranky Banker.. What does your rant have to do with the article?

  6. davistev

    October 10, 2018 at 1:51 pm

    The headline should read “Mgmt stuffed up staffing levels” rather than ATC chucking a sickee.

  7. Yachtman

    October 10, 2018 at 4:45 pm

    I agree with the above comments that the title is rather misleading. Sickness, absences from work etc are all foreseeable events, with any workforce this will happen eventually, therefore the management have failed to ensure adequate manning levels to cover such events.

  8. Storyteller

    October 12, 2018 at 12:13 am

    My flight 7pm was cancelled. QF gave me a voucher for a good hotel overnight and resheduled next day. Am QF Plat / OW Emerald and was not able to gat any other seat Sundy night..

    I think others also called in sick, and the final one pushed the threashold. Sounds like industrial action to me by a few!

  9. Gig103

    October 12, 2018 at 2:54 pm

    Storyteller that sounds plausible to me. I couldn’t imagine that staffing was so tight that one person would cause a ripple.

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