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Pilots have called for a new national air traffic control system to be introduced as soon as possible as software bugs exacerbate delays and cancellations caused by technical problems, wild weather and flight restrictions at Australia's busiest airport.

The most recent monthly airline performance data from the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics shows that flight arrivals, departures and cancellations continue to run above historical norms, with some 934 flights cancelled in August – a rate of 1.9 per cent compared to a long-term average of 1.4 per cent.  Cancellations were highest on the Sydney-Canberra route, followed by Canberra-Sydney and Sydney-Melbourne.

BITRE has not yet released data for September but more windy weather as well as a "software failure" on Airservices Australia's air traffic control system at Sydney Airport and technical problems with Virgin's check-in systems have exacerbated cancellations and delays.

Shane Loney, Safety and Technical Director for the Australian & International Pilots Association – which represents Qantas Group pilots – said the Airservices Australia's system failed "at the worst possible time" and a new system should be introduced as quickly as possible.

Federal restrictions
He said strong winds were dangerous for aircraft landings and so delays were inevitable. But federal restrictions on the number of flights that can take off and land at Sydney Airport made it "hard to recover" from delays. "Arbitrary limits sometimes create problems," he said.

The Tourism and Transport Forum has called on the federal government to abolish the requirement at Sydney Airport to limit flight movements to 20 every 15 minutes and increase movements to at least 85 per hour in exceptional circumstances to help airlines recover from major delays.  More than 10,000 flights were cancelled nationally in the 12 months to June, or 1.8 per cent of all scheduled flights, according to BITRE. March was a particularly bad month with Cyclone Debbie pushing up monthly flight cancellations to 3.1 per cent.

On-time departures over the same period, which account for 83.8 per cent of all flights, are also running below long-term averages and year-earlier figures.  Sydney Airport said its services to Melbourne and Brisbane were among the world's busiest routes, and "a critical driver" of the national economy.  "Delays in Sydney lead to delays across the nation so it's essential our policy settings support airlines catching up quickly when disruptions occur," a spokesperson said.

Airservices Australia, a government corporation, said a "network failure" between the control tower and terminal control unit at Sydney Airport meant its air traffic systems failed to convert from night-shift operations to day-shift operations last month, leaving only one air traffic control console operating during the morning peak period when normally six to eight consoles operate.  Airservices Australia's current system, known as the Australian Advanced Air Traffic System, is approaching the end of its life, according to the corporation.  "Its technology is ageing and unable to match the capability that new air traffic management solutions can offer," an Airservices spokesperson said, adding that "corrective actions" were under way to improve the resilience of the current system.

Airservices Australia has been working with the Defence Department to buy a new system, known as OneSKY, that it says will improve "safety, efficiency and resilience" for both civil and military air traffic.
But the system has encountered substantial delays. A national audit of the tender process released in April said that a request for tender was not issued until June 2013, 18 months later than expected, and contract negotiations were running 18 months over the planned 11-month schedule by January.

Airservices said the new combined civil and military air traffic management system would be implemented in phases starting in 2018 but would not be fully implemented until 2023.

Tender process
The Australian National Audit Office has criticised some aspects of the tender process, questioning its transparency and whether the successful tenderer offered "the best value for money".
Virgin chief executive John Borghetti is among those pushing for better aviation infrastructure in Sydney.  "Our current aviation infrastructure may have served us well in the past, but we need to expand this infrastructure in order to serve the needs of future travellers," he said in a speech at an industry event on Tuesday night.

"A holistic review of the airspace of the entire Sydney basin is required, including the airspace of Kingsford Smith Airport and Williamtown RAAF base near Newcastle."
The Qantas Group said it was supportive of reforms to improve air traffic control and was working with Airservices Australia on the implementation of the new air traffic control system.
Melbourne Airport said airlines, airports and Airservices Australia needed to work together to minimise disruptions.