There are problems with the intervention by the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese, to end the unsafe situation involving airliner flights at Launceston Airport.

After reading the CASA review document on which he based his advice to interested media of a ministerial direction that the problems were to be addressed these problems are:

1. Nothing has changed
2. The Minister doesn’t recognise an unsafe situation exists at Launceston, and
3. He has promised within six months full radar ‘supervision’ of out-of-hours flights at Launceston, even though such ‘supervision’ occurred, by chance, in the close encounter between a Virgin Blue 737 and a Jetstar A320 on the night of May 1, 2008, and failed to prevent the incident occurring.

In fact the Minister has revoked the air navigation changes the previous government tried to introduce, and with its support while in opposition. Yet they would have prevented the incompetence displayed by a Virgin Blue crew from endangering a total of 222 people on board both jets on the night in question.

It is now clear that last Friday, when the Minister ordered the use of radar to separate jet airliner movements at Launceston he was in fact endorsing the status quo, which involves do-it-yourself separation by jets which remain visible yet uncontrolled by the national air traffic radar system in Melbourne once the tower controllers at Launceston have clocked off.

If the Minister is serious about how safe the Launceston situation is then why don’t government and vice-regal flights into situations like those prevailing at Launceston on that night subject themselves to the same risks as he deems acceptable to ordinary Australians on scheduled airliners.

That is, have politicians in the VIP aircraft fly uncontrolled approaches and departures at Launceston on foggy nights which depend on the pilots of all aircraft in the same airspace using the same radio frequency, talking to each other and accurately describing their position, and sorting out who goes where, while paying attention to such things as the big mountains close to the airport?

It’s a game of Australian jet roulette that’s been played too many times in our airspace, aided by the venality of airline managements who think it is acceptable to save cents per passenger to schedule their jets into places like Launceston when they don’t have to pay tower fees for air traffic control all the way down to the ground after their flights descend out of the en route airspace which is controlled from the AirServices Australia centre in Melbourne (or Brisbane in some parts of the country).

The situation that provoked a fierce attack by Dick Smith was the release by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau of a report which took two years to produce (and get ticked as safe for publication by the airlines, CASA and AirServices Australia) which said their were no safety issues and made no safety recommendations.

Let’s recap. Two jets, saving each airline a total of $76 in additional air traffic control charges by scheduling arrival after the tower controllers go home, discover in quick succession that the Launceston runway is invisible in the fog at 200 feet, which is ‘decision’ height. So they fly away to see if the fog will clear, after which, if it hadn’t, they would have diverted to Hobart or Melbourne.

The ATSB finds that Virgin Blue ‘inadequately communicated’ its intentions to Jetstar. The first Jetstar knew about the real whereabouts of Virgin Blue was when it spotted its landing lights coming toward it as it broke through the top of the fog bank at 2800 feet.

Jetstar couldn’t dive because it was entering air space where the safe minimum altitude, because of mountains, is 3100 feet, which is where Virgin Blue was, so it had to climb up through the altitude being tracked by the 737.

If ever there was a situation where the lethal potential of non radar controlled procedures was present this was it, but the ATSB, to its discredit, saw no safety issues, and made no safety recommendations which in the opinion of this writer and others, betrayed a political sensitivity which overrode its obligation to independently and fearlessly address safety issues.

These were two Australian jet airliners and 222 people in jeopardy, yet in its survey of regional airports, CASA claims “there were no imminent safety concerns identified at the ten regional aerodromes”.

There is entrenched change resistance in the administrative, political and commercial culture of aviation in Australia, as evidenced in the ABC Hobart video below, showing an old school pilot saying there is only a ‘tiny risk’ in the current way situations like the Launceston incident are dealt with.

Only a tiny risk of hitting a mountain without ATC control. Oh what a relief!
Only a tiny risk of hitting a mountain without ATC control. Oh what a relief!

Captain Peter Lovett (above) attacks Smith for being ridiculous, but then goes on to admit the situation was ‘less than desirable’ and ‘almost failsafe’. Almost failsafe! Explain ‘ridiculous’ please Captain Lovett. The risk in this situation is totally avoidable by the use of technology we already have. The prime cause of aircraft crashes in Australia is controlled flight into terrain or CFIT, a risk present in the Launceston incident and conspicuously not mentioned in the ATSB report.

The rest of the world knows better than Captain Lovett, or those change resistant voices advising the Minister. The Australian way of risking Launceston type situations has been long discarded elsewhere, where active controlled separation of jet airliner movements is ‘normal’.

There is a difference between the Minister’s embrace of ‘supervision’ rather than ‘control’ and it can result in otherwise avoidable carnage.

A pre-radar approaching plane listening device, as old as the Launceston method
A pre-radar approaching plane listening device, as old as the Launceston method
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