One Vision

Steve Creedy meets Airservices Australia’s new chief executive Jason Harfield, a man who came up through the ranks and is now leading a significant transformation of the company as well as a cutting-edge merger of Australia’s military and civilian air navigation programmes.

Jason2A small red book on Jason Harfield’s desk contains four quotes he says sum up the traits that have made him Airservices Australia’s first “home grown’’ chief executive and the man anointed to take the organisation through some of the biggest changes in its 20-year history. Quotes by Dublin-born statesman Edmund Burke, former US president Harry Truman and Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu speak to traditional leadership traits such as taking ownership of issues, team building and both short- and long-term planning. But it’s an anonymous quote noting it must have taken great courage to determine frogs legs were edible and observing  that “sometimes you have to come out of your of your  comfort zone” that may be particularly germane to where Airservices is heading.

After acting in the position since early August, the former air traffic controller comes to the job with a strong view the air navigation provider needs to get “match fit’’ and he is determined that airspace users will share the benefits of a more efficient and responsive organisation. This includes a transformation programme designed not just to address the company’s current weak profitability – its return on average equity was just 0.7 per cent in 2014-15 – but to position it for a viable future that includes the world-first marriage of civilian and military air traffic systems under the OneSKY project

The changes mean the air navigation provider is delaying putting its five-year, long-term pricing plan to the Competition and Consumer Commission until October and the introduction of the next pricing regime is expected to be deferred until 1 July, 2017. In the interim, Airservices officials are talking to the major parties about a bridging agreement that proposes a CPI increase for the 2016-17 financial year while management clarifies what cost cuts and efficiencies will be introduced as part of the transformation programme.

While no changes are without pain, Harfield, 45, believes they are necessary to allow Airservices to perform in a way that will allow it to maximise the benefits of OneSKY. “My view is that it needs to be proportionally to the same level and magnitude as what we have seen with the Qantas transformation,’’ he says. “And it’s really about not only addressing the current situation but positioning us for the future operating environment. That means getting us able to deliver, in particular, OneSKY while  continuing to adapt and provide the services that the industry needs and requires, not what we think it wants.’’


Harfield, who is married with a 12-year-old son, describes himself a curious person, determined to grow, learn and push himself. His qualifications include an Executive Master of Business Administration from Melbourne Business School (Mt Eliza), he completed the Advanced Management Programme at Harvard Business School and is a fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors as well the Royal Aeronautical Society. But he is keenly aware that he needs to take the organisation with him, noting that Truman’s observation about what can be accomplished “if you don’t care who gets the credit” underscores the relationship between team work and success.

Success, he says, only comes from group accomplishments and he made building a united executive team with a coherent message one of his first priorities after becoming acting chief executive. “The signal to the organisation is we’re one organisation,’’ he says. “We’re not air traffic control, we’re not aviation rescue and fire-fighting, we’re not projects and engineering, we’re not corporate and industry affairs. We’ve just got to come together and continue to deliver.’’

Harfield’s lengthy tenure at Airservices means he is no stranger to tough issues and he is keen to repay the investment the organisation has made in his career. He also hopes his promotion will serve as a role model for others in Airservices operational areas. “Being someone who’s grown up in the organisation, I’m emotionally invested in the organisation,’’ he says. “So the success of the organisation — it’s not another job, it’s a passion. It’s been a big part of my life, in some ways the organisation’s a family so therefore you want it to succeed. You want to do it, you will drive it to succeed because it’s about the organisation. It’s not about the individuals.’’

One advantage of an Airservices career spanning 26 years , he observes, is knowing  the organisation “like the back of the hand’’ means he can identify which levers to pull and can do so quickly while judging  how it will affect other areas. “So if I want to go and work with our people in any part of the organisation to change how we do things, I’ll know where the ramifications are downstream, and that something won’t pop up in air traffic operations as result of making that change,’’ he says. “I know the upside and downside so no one can pull the wool over your eyes, particularly in having the safety background – something that is integral to our operations.’’

A quick overview of Harfield’s career charts how he built up the experience to make it to the top by dealing with what were often difficult situations. He remains an early starter and can be seen entering the Airservices’ Canberra headquarters before 7am.


His interest in leadership issues began in high school as he added a fascination about US presidents to a desire to become a pilot and a love of the Star Wars franchise that has spawned a collection of memorabilia from the sci-fi blockbusters in his office. It was the Reagan-Gorbachev era and the Darwin teenager became curious about the way individuals, particularly US presidents, influenced and changed the world as well as their flaws, strengths and failings. “They are all different in personality and achievement,’’ he says. “To me, it’s fascinating.’’

Plans to join the RAAF were thwarted by myopia but he was able to turn his private pilot qualifications and long-held interest in aviation – a black dot in a silver framed photograph in his Canberra office turns out to be an image of the Cessna 172 that took him on his first flight as a toddler – towards the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which he joined in flight data officer in 1989. “As a kid I was always enamoured in aviation and wanted to be a pilot and involved,’’ he recalls. “Twists and turns and I ended up going down the air traffic control path and it was one of the things that was meant to be.’’

After gaining his air traffic controller’s licence at 20, the young Harfield worked initially in Adelaide but moved to Melbourne as he saw the writing on the wall with the move to consolidate to two centres under then revolutionary The Australian Advanced Air Traffic System (TAAATS).

He was sent back to Adelaide to get his ratings on positions there and transfer sectors to Melbourne, a process he repeated in Sydney during 1993 and 1994. By the time Airservices was created in 1995, he was back in Melbourne working on the previous Sydney sectors as a team leader.

The rise continued as Harfield became involved with what was initially Airspace 2000, where he headed the southern flight information region helped introduce Class E airspace between Ballina and Canberra. Airspace 2000 morphed into the controversial Class G airspace demonstration before it was shut down after a safety investigation, but the E airspace remained. “By that stage we were getting very close into TAAATS,  so I went across to Western Australia and brought back all the Perth sectors,’’ he says.

Harfield was now a group leader but still an operational controller when in 2000 he applied for a flight information region manager’s role and still remembers his last transmission to an Ansett A320 as an active air traffic controller in May of that year. “It was the last shift, it was about 8 o’clock at night, I was working the Perth inner sectors and my last transmission was ‘Hotel Yankee Delta roger continue descent to flight level 140’,’’ he recalls.

By 2002, he was head operations manager at the Melbourne Centre and the following year, on November 27, he became the head air traffic controller just as an ill-fated National Airspace System (NAS) reform known as NAS 2b was introduced. NAS 2b began to unravel after a serious incident involving a Virgin Blue Boeing 737 and Tobago over Launceston on Christmas Eve that year prompted a safety investigation which revealed flaws in the safety case underscoring the scheme.


The subsequent fallout prompted top-level resignations and threw Harfield, as a newly-minted senior manager in charge of the air traffic control operating certificate and airspace regulation, into the thick of it. “We ended up working through that and dealing with a divided board and I think in that one year I got more experience in corporate governance than I probably would have in 15 years,’’ he says.

As the controversy subsided, Harfield was asked to join the executive team as general manager safety management with a brief to restore the faith in safety and risk management. “I was able to do that from an airspace perspective and that’s when I entered the executive in 2005 and did improve the safety management system and introduce a risk management system into the organisation,’’ he says.

By the end of 2007, however, Airservices faced an industrial campaign from air traffic controllers and then chief executive Greg Russell called on his skills to turnaround the air traffic control group as executive general manager. He started a reform programme that simplified work streams and over the next five-and-a-half years took the staff engagement score from 28 to 72 and more than halved staff absenteeism from 17 days to eight.

The staffing model was improved and made more efficient reducing the required number of operational controllers to around 900 and used the increased productivity to fund the 2012 enterprise bargaining agreement with controllers, the first time a back-to-back deal and the first time one had been reached without industrial trouble.“And that was all about engaging the controllers and delivering the change,’’ he says.

Harfield pitched for the chief executive’s job after Russell left but narrowly lost out to predecessor Margaret Staib. It was during her tenure that he moved to the newly-created role of executive general manager, future services delivery, responsible for leading the procurement and implementation of the new OneSKY traffic management platform.

He set about enhancing the relationship with the Department of Defence and ensuring that the team was ready for the tender evaluation. The new system will build on the Thales Group’s TopSky system, which features advanced monitoring and predictive capabilities that lend themselves to more flexible operating procedures such as user preferred routes.

The new chief executive does not believe the move is as big a jump as the introduction of its predecessor, The Australian Advanced Air Traffic System (TAAATS), which saw the switch from analogue to digital technology. “What we’re doing is we’re enhancing what we’ve got with better tools and functionality to be more efficient,’’ he says.


He is also “absolutely confident’’ OneSKY  will be delivered and operated as envisaged but  he concedes there will always be problems to solve in a world-first programme with no road map from previous projects to guide it. “Schedule is king and part of it is all to do with the fact that we’ve got two air traffic systems that are coming not only to end of life but if we’re also got to service the growth appropriately, we need to change,’’ he says.

“So we can’t stay in the current paradigm and our customers are wanting the benefits that are going to come from OneSKY.  So it’s actually an imperative for us to deliver on time and we know that there’s not an endless bucket of money. But everyone needs to understand that this is a program that is going to take five to 10 years to have it all fully transitioned. “The fact is that, with what I’ve called the heart and lung transplant, we‘ve got to transition from one to the other without skipping a beat and continuing to improve — and it’s a complex programme.’’

The programme has already courted some controversy and there have been pointed questions in Senate hearings about costs and procurement processes involving the International Centre for Complex Project Management. A review of the procedures by law firm Allens found the process was “adequate, robust, sound and consistent with market practice” and there had been no actual conflict of interest but agreed there was a possible perception of potential conflict.

Harfield says the air navigation provider took on board the lessons learned during TAAATS project and contends that robust probity and procurement processes mean “everything has been locked down to the nth degree’’. He believes it has nothing to fear from a review by the Australian National Audit Office or the Senate scrutiny. The project is also taking a new approach to avoid the problems that have plagued other big, untested projects that signed an acquisition contract on day one and discovered previously unforeseen problems five years into the project.

Instead, Airservices has opted for an advanced work supply agreement that concentrates on packages of work pulled out of would have been the acquisition contract and focusses on reducing risk. “We said we don’t want to sign up to an acquisition contract until we’ve got a contract that is not only executable but is commercially optimal for not only us and the Commonwealth [Defence], but also the supplier,’’ he says. “This is going to be a 25-year relationship and you don’t want to push the supplier into the ground… you’ve got to think over the long term. But also we don’t want to be paying more than we need to.’’

What this approach means, according to Harfield, is that problems that often crop up later in big contracts have been pulled forward and are being dealt with now. He adds: “There are capability issues, there are scheduling issues and all that. And guess what? We’ve committed no more than about 5 per cent on what would be a billion dollar investment over the life of the programme. “And we’re dealing with the problems now without all the full financial commitments.’’


After watching some of the problems plaguing his predecessors, Harfield knows that the Airservices capital programme will need to be deliverable, it will have to get a return on investment and it will need to deliver services that reduce delays as well as cater for growth.

He points to the company’s wider obligations to both its customers and the nation under the Air Services Act 1995 with its requirement to foster civil aviation both inside and outside Australia. “The work that we do is not just about providing a service,’’ he says “We need to do something that actually fosters and grows the industry and promotes it. Therefore, this is about moving us to being seen more as a value proposition rather than a transaction.’’

At the core of this, he contends, is delivering services in the most efficient and effective way. A “business diagnostic and efficiency review’’ is underway to see how Airservices can best cope with a flattening of revenue due to changes in aircraft utilisation and a reduction in resources industry traffic.

“An example I’ve used is that I can reduce costs in the organisation and let’s just say we can reduce prices by 1 per cent and save Qantas $4m a year in air navigation charges as a result,’’ he says. “But if I reallocated those costs to deliver a services such as the Airport Capacity Enhancement programme or flow management to reduce their fuel burn by 1 per cent per year, you’re saving them $40m a year.

“Cutting costs is efficient from a pricing perspective because it’s all about the cost base but at the end of the day we actually have to deliver something and it’s delivering the most efficient thing of value. It’s not just having the air traffic control service, it’s making sure that airspace users are being efficient from point A to point B so their own operating costs reduce.”

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