Dick Smith’s attack on the ATSB’s report into a close encounter between a Virgin Blue 737 and a Jetstar A320 over a fog bound Launceston Airport on May 1, 2008, applies heat to two critical issues.

They are secrecy and unaccountability in our safety investigator the ATSB, and the safety regular, CASA, and dangerously derelict use of air traffic control radar where it is available in Australian skies.

From this morning 'The Examiner'
From this morning's 'The Examiner'

As reported in the Crikey email bulletin this afternoon, Smith took out full page ads in the Tasmanian dailies and released a letter he has sent to the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, containing implications of misconduct or incompetence by the ATSB that cannot be easily brushed aside, as well as a claim that the government has reneged on the bi-partisan support it gave to air navigation reforms while in opposition.

From 'The Mercury' this morning
From 'The Mercury' this morning

The air proximity incident occurred in full view of AirSerices Australia’s excellent, world class radar system, yet it wasn’t, as a consequent of deliberate air traffic control management policy, being used to keep the jets safely apart.

It is only by good luck that 222 people didn’t die in a mid air collision between the two jets.

Yet the ATSB didn’t make a single safety recommendation following its inquiries into the incident, even though both jets were being displayed as in a dangerous situation on Australia’s air traffic control radar system.

Instead it took secret submissions from the two airlines, AirServices Australia and the air safety regulator, CASA, before coming out with an obviously inadequate report which seems more designed to keep the public in the dark than address a glaring deficiency in so far as available radar isn’t being used to keep Australian airliners apart.

What was in those submissions? ATSB suppression of submissions from airlines and other authorities after it has completed its inquiries and before it issues a report make the transparent enforcement of safety standards in Australian aviation an impossibility.

In the Tasmanian press this morning the Minister for Transport, Anthony Albanese, is quoted as saying he has relied on ‘experts’ for advice about how safe the air navigation system is, a rather sanguine view of a system that was switched on but not being applied over Launceston.

Who are these faceless ‘experts’ controlling the failure of Labor to safely administer aviation in the country?

How can they possibly justify the leaving of two jet airliners to their own devices to keep themselves apart, in a part of the skies where there is, incredibly, no declared safe separation requirements, while the radar remains on.

Why is the ATSB silent on this? Then again, one has to question, as Plane Talking has in the past, why the ATSB is a push over when Jetstar breaks the law on reportable air safety incidents and goes unprosecuted, yet a tiny little outfit like Transair, which had barely enough seats in its Metroliners to kill 15 people at a time, was, way too late, prosecuted by the investigator for a history of not reporting similar matters and then only after the Lockhart River crash.

Or why it failed to even investigate REX flying a plane load of passengers most of the way from Wagga Wagga to Sydney in 2007 with one engine shut down. Past available emergency landing strips, and over the southern highlands. And then made excuses for the airline, rather than pursue the matter?

Or expressed satisfaction, without elaboration, in the ‘safety outcomes’, after a Qantaslink Dash 8 was so unprofessionally flown into Sydney Airport on Boxing Day 2008 that it almost stalled twice in ten seconds while the first officer disobeyed the captain’s directions.

Earlier discussions of proposed air space reforms in this country have foundered on eye-glazing discussions of the different classes of airspace, labelled as E, D and C in most of the examples that were dissected by warring factions in the aviation community.

The distinctions don’t matter in terms of policy settings. All that matters is that the radar resource than is used in the rest of the world to keep aircraft apart is conscientiously not being used in Australia.

As Smith points out in his letter to the PM, we have in recent years in Australia, seen six people fly to their deaths in the Benalla private aircraft crash on July 28, 2004, while observed to be off course on radar, and had a Qantas 737 descend in the dark below the summit of adjacent Mt Tinderry but by coincidence, along the defile of a river valley, on 24 July, 2004, while under national radar coverage as it was making a botched approach to Canberra.

The idiocy if not culpability of not using the available radar coverage to prevent such errors has not engaged the minds of successive minister responsible for aviation, perhaps because they consult advisers who are inside the aviation establishment tent and thus part of the problem rather than its resolution.

One reason for the resistance of the aviation establishment to air space reform may be the hatred felt in parts of the aviation community for Dick Smith.

If this is so, it will be a very poor excuse for public policy failures that will inevitably lead to slaughter in our skies.

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