- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

ATHENS, Greece (AP) - Greece’s air traffic controllers’ union is calling for an urgent upgrade of the country’s air traffic radar system and for more staff to be hired to handle increasing number of tourist arrivals.

The country’s air traffic control system was operating with diminishing staff and a main radar system dating from 1999 that has only been upgraded once, in 2008, union head Spyros Rolakis said Wednesday.

Rolakis insisted there was no compromise to flight safety, but said that in order for fewer staff to safely handle more flights with aging technology, flights would likely face delays.

“Imagine if you had today the cellphone and laptop you bought 16 years ago,” Rolakis said during a rare union news conference. “How would you function? With many shortcomings and restrictions, and you wouldn’t be able to do your job exactly as you’d like.”

Buying a new radar system and hiring more staff wouldn’t burden Greece’s troubled budget, he explained, because the country should be using funds derived from airline fees paid to countries when using their airspace - even when the planes don’t land in Greece. Under European regulations, Rolakis said, these fees are earmarked for air traffic-related investment - equipment, airspace planning, training and staff salaries.

“This means that the purchase, installation of new equipment and the hiring of new controllers doesn’t have any fiscal cost,” he said. “The Greek taxpayer doesn’t pay.” But he said the state hadn’t used this capability for years.

Greece has been struggling through a deep financial crisis and has been dependent on funds from an international bailout since May 2010, but it enjoyed a tourism boom in 2014 with about 21 million arrivals, and is hoping for even more this year.

Tourism is one of Greece’s most important industries, making up more than 15 percent of gross domestic product in 2011. The country’s economy has shrunk by about a quarter since 2008, and it has been pinning hopes of recovery partially on increasing tourism.

But Rolakis warned such hopes could be dashed if the country’s air traffic controllers, who handle not only flights to and from the country but also those overflying Greece, are unable to increase their capacity.

Last year, 550 Greek air traffic controllers handled 678,000 flights, Rolakis said, compared to 707 controllers handling 411,000 flights in 2002.

“We handled 65 percent more flights with 22 percent fewer staff,” he said, noting that was a 112 percent increase in workload.

He said the increase in productivity had been achieved by the near total cancellation of staff’s summer vacations and weekly days off, many overtime hours “and a great deal of pressure and stress.”

Hiring more staff is also time-consuming, with prospective controllers needing three years’ training and then another two years on the job before they’re allowed to handle flights alone, so new staff hired now would only be fully operational in 2020.

The consequences of the combination of aging technology and short-staffing are simple, the union head said: “obstacles in tourism development and a loss of income for the country.”

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