The ATSB has today published a defence of air safety in Australia that should not go unanswered.
Contrary to the statement, the often excellent work done by the supposedly independent safety investigator is let down by lapses that raise serious doubts about its consistency if not integrity, and which might only be resolved by an independent inquiry by an international panel charged with recommending significant changes.
There also needs to be a specific inquiry into the operations of CASA, its failure to take public actions against Jetstar over recent farcical and dangerous events on board its airliners, and the reasons why it suspended the AOC of Tiger Airways yet did not take similar action against the Qantas low cost subsidiary over persistent safety issues.
Aviation safety in this country depends on its public administration, which ought to be carried out in public, and be done fearlessly and impartially as well as openly.
There are many significant matters that could be the subject of such inquiries, including the reviewing of the circumstances under which CASA for example permitted an airline, Transair, which it knew to be dangerous, to continue flying at substantial risk to the safety of the Australian public until it crashed on approach to the Lockhart River strip in far northern Queensland in 2005, in fact seven years ago today, killing all 15 people on board.
Here are some of the most recent matters of concern, all involving Jetstar.
In July last year a Jetstar A320 approach to Melbourne Airport was abandoned at a low altitude after key rules for a landing approach were broken between the first officer and the captain, with the airline stating in an internal report that an increased workload imposed on the captain by the less experienced junior pilot was a factor in causing him to become distracted.
This ATSB report was damning, if tactful. In November however the ATSB decided not to inquire into a missed approach to Cairns airport during which the junior pilot twice failed to correctly set flap, an inability in terms of basic flying skills so grievous as to merit an urgent review of the quality of training that Jetstar was accepting, as well as its oversight of pilot safety standards.
However the most astonishing incident of all, which occurred in May 2010, was the subject of a recent report into a Jetstar A321 go-around which occurred at low altitude over Singapore’s Changi airport after the captain became distracted– according to the ATSB–by his struggles to turn off a mobile phone which began receiving text messages as the jet descended toward its intended landing at the end of a flight from Darwin.
In fact, the report disclosed a far more serious situation in the cockpit of the 220 seat airliner. It showed that as the jet dropped toward the airport neither pilot did anything for a period of two minutes during which they were supposed to:
- select the landing gear down
- select the flaps to ‘Config 3’ and then ‘full’
- arm the ground spoilers
- select auto brake
- complet the landing checklist, and
- check the flight parameters
At a point well below 1000 feet the first officer says he was unable to get the attention of the captain who was distracted by his txt messages, and initiated a go-around below 500 feet, with the jet sinking to less than 400 feet before it pulled away.
Both pilots told the inquiry that at no time did they think they below 800 feet.
These are two pilots in the cockpit of a state of the art jetliner equipped with multiple altimeters and a whole series of annunciators and alarm lights and sirens, which the ATSB says were going off, who ‘thought’ they were above 800 feet!
The ATSB report says the captain said he wasn’t carrying out any of his required supervisory duties in relation to the first officer who was the pilot flying, because, he wasn’t doing the flying.
This is an intolerably serious admission for a pilot employed by an Australian airline to make, and begs the question, what exactly is going on in CASA?
Is it going to keep silent, like it did with Transair, saying nothing about such serious threats to public safety, and wait until we have a few hundred dead people, or it is going to do its job, and let the public in on the secret?
The ATSB said of this and every other Jetstar incident it has investigated or chosen not to investigate that safety wasn’t compromised. This is a lie. If safety wasn’t compromised it wouldn’t have inquired into the Melbourne and Singapore Jetstar incidents. As well as saying that the safety of no Jetstar flight it has investigated has ever been compromised, the ATSB says that there was no systemic safety issues in the recent events, and CASA, which normally contributes to the final report of an ATSB inquiry into a large airliner incident, was not mentioned once in the Singapore incident report.
How does the ATSB construe ‘systemic’ to exclude the common failings of flight safety standards in the cockpits of three different Jetstar flights in less than 18 months? For CASA to say or do nothing about such an appalling situation puts its integrity on the line, considering that it grounded Tiger Airways as an imminent threat to public safety in July last year, yet here it had two pilots incapable of speaking to each other flying an Australian airliner almost flown into the ground in a cockpit full of alarms, who were then allowed to fly the return Singapore-Darwin leg.
If this constitutes the proper administration of air safety in Australia by CASA, the safety enforcer, or the ATSB, the safety investigator, then no one can feel safe flying in this country.