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Big Read: Inside the crisis at Ireland’s air traffic control system

Just before 4am on December 7, 2019, Aer Lingus flight EI104 from New York to Dublin was making its way across Ireland, high above Co Westmeath, when it was put into an unusual holding pattern.

oon, inbound flights from Washington DC, Newark and Connecticut – full of sleeping passengers – were also in the circular holding pattern above Mullingar.

What passengers and crew above the midlands did not know was that a row had erupted over the sacking days earlier of a senior Irish Aviation Authority employee, an air traffic control supervisor.

He had sent a postcard to two of his managerial colleagues calling them “incompetent w**kers” eight months previously.

In protest at their colleague’s sacking, controllers had that morning refused to cooperate with a voluntary – and hugely divisive – call-in system of overtime upon which Ireland’s air traffic control system service has become highly dependent. When the controller handling the wave of early-morning approaching transatlantic jets was due to go on break, there was nobody to give him cover – and the aircraft were put into a temporary hold.

The sacking had come at a time when industrial relations tensions were already high. Controllers were – and continue to be – deeply concerned about the fate of their pensions once the operational and regulatory sides of the company are split apart, as is planned.

But the postcard sacking is a weeping sore at the heart of an air traffic control system already beset with conflict around the overtime call-in system on which it depends. Despite his successful appeal to an independent panel chaired by former Labour Court chairman Kevin Duffy and medical clearance to return to work, the company has not allowed the employee to come back to work.

Duffy disagreed with the company’s contention that there was no evidence of the mental health disorder that the employee had claimed he was suffering from when he sent the postcard. Duffy also pointed out that the postcard had not contained a threat.

The early morning standoff at the control centre after the man was sacked is just one of the most dramatic manifestations of the crisis at Ireland’s air traffic control system. In recent days, trade union representatives and a large number of controllers have sent a detailed and incendiary letter to Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan. They questioned the impact of the overtime system on safety and warned that State airports faced potential closure at times.

“Knowing the IAA’s exposure to overtime, IAA management inexplicably failed to realise that they had created a business model that requires the cooperation of the air traffic controllers, while at the same time destroying the goodwill afforded to them by the very employees whose cooperation maintains the service continuity,” it stated.

The letter continued: “In December 2019, the air traffic control service was not available at Dublin Airport. This was as a result of the dismissal of one of our colleagues who had a diagnosed mental health condition. All air traffic controllers were horrified as to the way this person was treated and could not in all conscience make themselves available to cover short-notice staffing difficulties.”

An IAA spokesman said the company was aware of the letter and “has provided an update to the Minister for Transport, outlining the factual position on the matters raised and refuting the allegations in their entirety”.

It “operates to the highest safety standards. At no point has this safety ever been compromised and there has been no risk to ATC services over the last year”, he said.

The spokesman said that “the priority of the IAA and all its staff is safety. This is recognised by international observers, who regard the IAA as one of the top air navigation service providers globally, and a consistent high performer with regard to compliance with safety standards”. 

The letter sent by controllers to Minister Ryan said staff were “very concerned that there may have been numerous events in relation to the level of dignity in the workplace afforded to the staff of the IAA. I am worried that vulnerable people may have been identified, targeted, isolated, reassigned, dismissed or resigned under unusual circumstances.

“Of greatest concern is the apparent death by suicide of one recently retired member of staff. Colleagues and I were horrified when one of our former colleagues went missing. I believe that this person may have made a protected disclosure to the Department of Transport before leaving the IAA on an unusual early retirement.”

In February 2020, word had spread among IAA staff that a former colleague was missing. Her remains were later recovered from the ocean in Co Mayo.

The woman had worked in the mapping department. During 2017 the department had been at the centre of a media storm following revelations about serious concerns of incorrect data on navigation maps used by the crew of tragic helicopter Rescue 116.

The IAA had received a protected disclosure in 2017 – but has declined to comment on this.

The woman’s parish priest, contacted by the Sunday Independent, said that her family “have nothing to say publicly or privately about their sister’s death, and would like that to be respected”.

Whatever the circumstances – the details of which remain unclear – the death of the woman caused huge upset among her former colleagues at the IAA.

The IAA statement said that it “operates to the highest standards of respect and dignity in the workplace. We do not comment on individual staff matters”.

At the time of the woman’s disappearance, the completely unrelated disciplinary procedure relating to the postcard was under way. The IAA had reported the postcard and its sender to the Gardaí.

The sender – a control centre supervisor – had worked for almost 30 years with a blemish-free record. He also had a second role with responsibility for the IAA’s network management and for liaising on airspace data issues with Eurocontrol in Brussels.

There was no room for errors in the data, so he often found himself calling out issues with projects being driven by other managers. Conflict – and long hours scouring other people’s work for mistakes – came with the job.

Some managers warned him that he should keep his opinions to himself and, in documents pertaining to his disciplinary procedure, he has since told the company that he felt bullied, intimidated and excluded by senior colleagues over a long period of time, leading up to the postcard incident.

As time went by the atmosphere began to play on his mind.

On one occasion when he had led a project to save the company a substantial amount of money he emailed the then chief executive: “Please forgive the intrusion on Sunday evening but not being recognised for work, which is subsequently claimed by another, in the presence of my peers, has played on my mind all weekend.”

On another occasion, he emailed a senior director to say that some in the IAA “see my role as part of a problem and certainly not part of the solution. This is an ongoing issue that I deal with as best as I can, but I have to highlight it this time, because the risk to the Authority is greater than normal.

“The intimidation reached such a level by 2017 that I had been instructed by [a manager] to vacate my office,” he wrote in his submission to the disciplinary committee.

But he carried on trying to balance the two jobs – one of which involved shift work rotations, including nights, and the other which required regular travel to Brussels and other European cities on IAA business. He often worked 20-hour days and would regularly get up at 2am for work-related travel, it is understood.

For two years he had been attending his doctor with high blood pressure, complaining of headaches, abdominal and chest pains, fatigue and insomnia. He would later say that he had been too embarrassed to tell work colleagues about his anxiety and that he believed he was being bullied but he told his doctor who, he said, advised him to change job.

When his father was diagnosed with cancer in 2015 and died after a short illness, things got worse, according to a moving statement made by the man’s wife to his IAA disciplinary hearing. It described how the amount of time he had begun to spend working was causing problems at home and impacting his demeanour. 

“In November 2015 his father died after a short illness,” she said. “For three weeks prior to his father’s death… he visited him on just two occasions.”

“The death of his father I believe left a vacuum in his life which he has found it hard to fill. The person with whom he confided in most of all was gone and he did not want to burden his friends with his difficulties,” she said. 

“2016 was a repeat of the previous year, too much travelling and spending long hours at work neglecting his family and himself,” she said. 

He had always loved his role, but it was catching up on him and he began to suffer depressive episodes. 

“Thoughts of suicide were ever present during the first quarter of 2019. I found myself at odds with some managers on a number of issues which I believed were not being dealt with properly,” he later said in his submission to his disciplinary hearing. 

Finally, he snapped. Having dropped his daughter to a music lesson, he left her his phone on the front seat and a note telling her to ring her mother. He walked towards a fast-flowing river with the intention of ending his life. He did not go through with it, but instead returned to his car and wrote the offending postcard.

But two weeks later he attempted taking his own life again – this time by a failed overdose.

A week later a phone call came from his IAA superior. The company had taken the postcard to the Gardaí, who had traced it to a post office where he could be seen on video posting it. He immediately admitted what he had done.

That same night he wrote a letter of apology and admission of his “dreadful behaviour” to a senior manager. 

“Looking back I was so blinded by my anger and stress that I found an outlet and someone to blame for my thoughts going through my own head, being useless, unsuccessful and unable to achieve anything,” he wrote.

In the letter he took full responsibility, expressed total regret and poured out many of his concerns around what he perceived as his isolation in the workplace and failure to get promotion: “I have invested 28 years and I felt the whole place has just laughed at my best efforts.”

He was placed on administrative leave. A month later he had transferred from his local hospital, where he had gone in crisis, to spend nine weeks in St Patrick’s Hospital. He was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive personality disorder.

He has worked hard at recovery ever since, making good progress. His mental health consultant wrote him a letter of support to the IAA ahead of his disciplinary hearing, which took place in May 2019, a month after he left St Patrick’s.

According to a letter seven months later from a senior manager, informing him that his employment was to be terminated, the allegation against him was one of gross misconduct. “That you were responsible for sending an unacceptable, abusive and lewd open message by postcard in the public postal system to [two senior IAA managers].”

The postcard, the letter added, had caused “considerable upset and stress to the recipients and due to the nature of the message raised concerns to IAA human resources over a possible insider threat.

“At the hearing on August 29, 2019, and in the correspondence from your GP dated May 1, 2019, the explanation given for the posting of the card relates to a series of personal events… that led you to consider suicide on the day you posted the card.”

The senior manager wrote that he was “not convinced” by his explanation of mental health issues partly stemming from bullying and harassment at work.

The manager said he had checked with HR and found no absence for work-related stress since 2014 “nor was the company advised of any diagnosis of a mental health illness and there were no complaints of bullying and harassment”.

The manager had concluded that he held “questionable feelings bordering on hostility to several personnel within the IAA and this has raised concerns for me” – so his employment was to be terminated immediately.

The IAA had referred the matter to An Garda Síochána but the DPP found no grounds for prosecution.

The industrial relations atmosphere within IAA had already been difficult. But now things got much worse. Trade union Fórsa wrote to the IAA chief executive about its “grave concern” and said “we no longer have the confidence in the management of the company to engage with our members in a respectful and trustful manner”.

In a follow-up letter, the trade union said: “I am not sure by the content of your response to me that you have fully grasped the potential damage this statement will and is doing to staff relations… This event has placed us on the cusp of a paradigm shift in this landscape.

“If this proves to be the case, I am certain that the landscape ahead of us will be paved with disharmony, disagreement and a less successful entity than we now have.”

The return of full schedules at Irish airports will test this in the coming months.

For its part, the IAA pointed out that the pandemic has led to unprecedented damage for the Irish aviation sector. It said in its statement that it is “committed to working with our staff, trade unions and the industry to bring Irish aviation back to its best and to start the recovery.”

Staff issues or concerns could only be dealt with through “the agreed industrial relations framework” of the company.

“We invite those workers who have raised issues to re-engage with the independent disputes resolution process and to work constructively with the company to find a solution that is satisfactory for staff and the company and allows us to get on with the important process of rebuilding Irish aviation,” it said.

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