If a flight is delayed or cancelled, what are your rights?

The recent chaos that engulfed Sydney Airport might have been mopped up but the alarm bells are still ringing.

On Monday 25 September, at the start of the busy school holiday period, an air traffic control systems failure caused massive delays to domestic and international flights at Australia's busiest airport. Instead of the usual 50 aircraft movements per hour, for several hours there were an average of just 15 take-offs and landings.

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Thousands of travellers were affected. They missed connecting flights, missed important events – a family funeral in at least one case – missed meetings and spent several hours hanging around in crowded airport terminals when they should have been somewhere else.

Many of those travellers were left wondering who was responsible, and whether they might be entitled to compensation, but no point asking the airlines.

Under their conditions of carriage, the contract between the passenger and the airline, Australia's carriers undertake to get you from A to B, and nothing more. If your flight is delayed - and unlike in the US and EU countries of Europe – there is no statutory right to compensation in Australia.

<i>Huge queues at Sydney Airport.</i>

Huge queues at Sydney Airport. Photo: AAP

If a flight delay causes you financial loss, the other recourse might be a travel insurance policy. According to Angus Kidman, travel expert and editor-in-chief at finder.com.au, "You may be able to claim against travel insurance for delays or seek a refund if a trip is not possible, but it depends on the policy - some cheaper policies don't include either option. It also depends on the cause of the delay; policies often don't cover unforeseen events, natural disasters or terrorist incidents. Even if you're covered, your insurer will expect you to have exhausted all compensation options with the airline before it will pay up anything, and you won't normally get compensation for any delay shorter than six hours."

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However in this case the delay was caused by problems with air traffic control systems. Even under the generous compensation that the EU extends to air passengers who suffer delays, air traffic control issues are classed as an "Extraordinary Circumstance", and the air carrier is not obliged to pay compensation.

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Photo: Steven Siewert

Ultimately, this comes down to a failure on the part of Airservices Australia (AsA) the government-owned air navigation service provider responsible for civil aviation air traffic control, which blamed the disruptions on a software failure.

In a statement released two days after the outage, an Airservices spokesperson said "The root cause of the fault is under investigation. Once the cause is clearly understood corrective action will be developed to improve system resilience."

Regardless of where the fault in the system lies, what the outage reveals is that there is no backup system. Most modern air traffic control systems have full redundancy to allow air traffic control to maintain normal operations if the frontline operating system is compromised, but in Australia a software failure can bring our air traffic control system to its knees, and that's because an organisation isn't doing its job.

As noted by Jayson Westbury, CEO of the Australian Federation of Travel Agents: "it is hard to believe that in a modern 2017 world that a critical piece of infrastructure like power and a software feed to control aircraft movements could go down for extended period of time. And if so, that there is not a robust redundancy system in place and ready to go."

Apart from the inconvenient fact of passenger delays, a dysfunctional air traffic control system is not a safe air traffic control system.

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Photo: Craig Abraham

Sources within the industry are pointing the finger of blame at cuts within Airservices Australia, and rumblings at Airservices Australia, suggest that all is not well within the organisation. Signs point to a disconnect between managers and those at the coalface, and that includes air traffic controllers.

Under a cost-cutting exercise that goes by the quaint counterfeit of the Accelerate program, AsA has had a net loss of more than 700 staff. Despite AsA's insistence that the cuts only affected backroom support staff and not frontline workers, those made redundant include safety specialists and flight simulator training operators, and AsA insiders have warned that the cuts pose a risk to air safety.

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Warning signs emerged from the severe thunderstorm that hit Melbourne on 29 December 2016, causing incoming aircraft to maintain a holding pattern over the city. Storms that disrupt air traffic are not unusual, but what was remarkable in this instance was what seemed to be panic at AsA, underlining the effects of the staff cuts.

According to a leaked email from one senior manager to colleagues: "We barely pulled through with five trained staff."

<i>The view from the control tower at Avalon Airport.</i>

The view from the control tower at Avalon Airport. Photo: James Davies

Other email exchanges between senior managers in the ASA's National Operations Centre described a system critically compromised, with staff reductions as the implied cause.

"This is synonymous with the phrase "flying blind' or "leaping before you look"; in an organisation whose primary focus is "safety" this kind of attitude is totally appalling," and "attempting a night like tonight with only two on shift is sheer lunacy."

In the wake of the storm at Melbourne Airport Senator Nick Xenophon demanded an immediate halt to AsA's retrenchments until an independent investigation was conducted. The senator has been calling for an investigation into the operation of ASA for several years, and it seems his latest demand met with the same result - a deafening silence from the authorities charged with maintaining safety in our skies.

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