Aug 31, 2011

Wikileaks: Australia nearly lost its air safety rating

A Wikileaks cable shows that by late 2009 air safety regulation in Australia was so deficient t

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

A Wikileaks cable shows that by late 2009 air safety regulation in Australia was so deficient that the country risked being downgraded to third world status, and that this would have compelled the US authorities to terminate the Qantas code share with American Airlines and disallow new services between Australia and the US by V Australia.

The cable was posted on the Professional Pilots Rumour Network by user ‘Sunfish’ earlier this morning and was sent by the US Embassy in Canberra to various parties in the US Government and its aviation safety administration on December 7, 2009.

It was sent soon after an audit by a US Federal Aviation Administration team of CASA between November 30 and December 4, 2009, to determine if Australia met the standards required to remain a top tier state under the rules of  the UN body, the International Civil Aviation Organisation or  ICAO.  CASA failed to satisfy that preliminary audit.

The FAA team had arrived in Canberra late in November 2009  to follow up on earlier adverse findings by ICAO inspectors, which had been reported in May 2009 in Plane Talking, here and here

The cable details a scenario in which an Australian air safety administration downgrade could have been subsequently confirmed by the end of February last year and officially published by the FAA in mid March.

This was however averted by what Plane Talking understands to have been diplomatic pressure in Washington DC and a sharp rise in funding for CASA under its new director of air safety John McCormick stapled to an extensive set of commitments to remedial actions which CASA continues to work on meeting and sustaining.

CASA is in the midst of unprecedented regulatory reform and is clearly working to very tough deadlines to fix what is not widely acknowledged to have been decades of incompetence and neglect but which were bad enough for the FAA downgrade to be described in the cable as a worst case scenario that could have been confirmed publicly  by the US regulator as early as March of last year.

Since this close call CASA has demonstrated its toughness by suspending Tiger Airways flights in July and early August of this year and is been reported here as having threatened other larger Australian carriers with the issuance of a show cause notice against their air operator certificates unless they promptly respond to and comply with any of its concerns as or when they arise.

Under US laws, American airlines are not allowed to put their booking codes over services flown by the airlines of countries with inadequate or ineffective administration of air transport safety standards.  Nor are the airlines of such countries allowed to fly new services to the US, and those that were already being flown would come under enhanced surveillance and safety compliance checking by FAA inspectors.

The consequences for both Qantas and Virgin Blue subsidiary V Australia of such a downgrade of Australian air safety standards from Level 1 to Level 2 early in 2010 as indicated in the leaked cable would have been commercially disastrous.

The FAA audit that Australia initially failed to satisfy came after decades in which the Australian policy setting had been to trust the major carriers to do the right thing, and to devote disproportionate CASA resources to prosecuting breaches by general aviation and third tier regional operations.

However even there CASA had been a failure, as demonstrated by its determined unwillingness to impose safety compliance on the known yet tolerated dangerous operations of Transair before one of its flights crashed on approach to the Lockhart River strip in  far northern Queensland in 2005, killing all 15 people on board.

That accident, a rising sense of unease over serious Qantas and Jetstar incidents, and the FAA process that followed up and confirmed the ICAO findings, had all set up CASA for serious change by the time the 2010 Federal Budget threw long overdue additional funding at the safety regulator.

In May 2009, after being leaked the ICAO findings that lead to the FAA actions, Plane Talking reported:

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) audit of safety oversight in Australia isn’t a pretty read.

There are a number of findings about the regulator, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) and the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), the incident and accident investigator, and AirServices Australia, that reflect poorly on their performance, and therefore on their governmental and managerial oversight.

… for close on ten years prior to this (ICAO) audit the safety leadership and diligence of Australia in terms of air safety standards was a myth, and more the result of luck than rigor.

With luck, and hard work, the luck referred to will not run out before the CASA reforms are completed.

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10 thoughts on “Wikileaks: Australia nearly lost its air safety rating

  1. David Klein

    Ben, as a retired front line inspector working under various appalling CASA senior management treams for over two decades I welcome this posting to expose the the significant shortcomings found by FAA after years of regulatory blundering and incompetence. Even now after my crusade to try and have more airworthiness inspector resources allocated to the CASA Sydney office to oversight Qantas for a realistic audit sample, including a submission to the 2008 Senate Inquiry, I note there has been no meaningful change and probably won’t be unless QF loses an aeroplane.

  2. crystals76

    Why does it take an overseas agency’s threat of downgrade for the Australian Government to act, when people within the industry have been saying the same thing for a very long time?

    How it is that a major airline in Australia can ‘ban’ a CASA inspector from conducting audits because of a history of adverse audit findings on that particular organisation?

  3. [email protected]

    The Sydney Field Office has been a law unto itself and fully in the pocket of Qantas for many years. Confidential information passed to CASA has been handed directly to Qantas with the names intact of the informants. Qantas have been given a free ride. It speaks for the culture within the authority that has developed uncontrolled for many years that the current management has to break before real change occurs.

  4. Judith Mellar

    What is a cable?

  5. Ben Sandilands

    Wikipedia offers this explanation:

    A diplomatic cable, also known as a diplomatic telegram or embassy cable, is the term given to a confidential text message exchanged between a diplomatic mission, like an embassy or a consulate, and the foreign ministry of its parent country.

    The term cable derives from the time when the medium for such communications was international submarine communications cables.

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