By Leigh Johnston
A damning report has found Australia’s air travellers could be at risk because of a toxic culture of sexual harassment, rampant bullying and discrimination in the nation’s air traffic control centres.
The report, written by former Federal Court justice Tony North QC, was provided to the board of federal agency Airservices Australia prompting calls for an independent inquiry.
“There is a serious argument that the culture of the Airservices workforce put at risk its ability to fulfil its statutory obligation to ensure the safety of air navigation in Australia,” concluded Mr North.
In response to the report and internal staff surveys, Airservices Australia acknowledged the existence of workplace culture problems, claiming they had asked Australia’s former sex discrimination commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, to conduct a comprehensive review.
However, Airservices Australia strongly rebuffed the allegation that its workplace culture was affecting air traveller safety, describing the claims as “false and alarmist.”
“When our safety performance is compared against our peers, we compare exceptionally well,” the agency said in a statement to The Age and Sydney Morning Herald
The report was partially based on a survey of 524 air traffic control workers.
According to the findings, half of all respondents, and more than three quarters of female Airservices workers who responded reported inappropriate touching, bullying, discrimination or sexual harassment over the past decade.
Comments submitted by air traffic controllers referred to a culture of “fear”, “retribution” and “nepotism.”
“The overall culture towards women is putrid,” noted one respondent.
Australia’s air traffic controllers are responsible for 160 million passenger movements each year and they oversee two of the world’s busiest routes, Melbourne-Sydney and Brisbane-Sydney.
Mr North and the Civil Air union are now calling on the Morrison government to establish a wide-ranging independent inquiry. The former judge found that a prolonged period of troubling workplace conduct at Airservices indicated that management may be responsible for the toxic culture.
Disturbing workplace incidents at major airports in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, as well as busy secondary airports such as Bankstown and Camden in New South Wales were reported.
A senior Melbourne air traffic control manager responsible for training was sacked in early 2017 after an inquiry found he stalked and repeatedly sexually harassed a younger woman who reported to him.
A separate inquiry commissioned by Airservices, into issues at regional NSW airports identified “sexist remarks about women”, the use of inappropriate language, a failure to respect protocols of shared bathrooms and “ogling of women in the vicinity of towers using binoculars.”
At the Sydney airport tower, an internal Airservices wellbeing assessment identified “serious issues of concern”, including sexist, racist and other derogatory comments about staff complemented by a perceived lack of action from management. More than 90 per cent of staff reported observing or experiencing “disrespectful” behaviour.
Air Traffic Management manager Roger Chambers acknowledged in writing to staff that the workplace assessment had identified inappropriate workplace conduct. But perpetrators were only asked to stop and those offended, were encouraged to “challenge such conduct in the future.”
Civil Air executive secretary Peter McGuane said it was noteworthy that Airservices did not have a specific sexual harassment policy.
“Having a sexual harassment policy is entry level – Airservices have failed to reach even that level,” he said.