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Jan 24, 2012

A freudian slip over Australian aviation safety

Is the security farce at Australian airports really about protecting our reputation for air safety? The Minister for Transport, Anthony Albanese says it is! Well, fu

Is the security farce at Australian airports really about protecting our reputation for air safety?

The Minister for Transport, Anthony Albanese says it is! Well, full marks for laying that on the line.

The last line of this morning’s recycling in localised press releases of previously repeatedly announced Government initiatives in relation to more explosives detection scanners for Melbourne Airport gives away the priority all Australian governments appear to give in general to appearances rather than realities.

Melbourne Airport will benefit from a boost to security through the Gillard Labor Government’s $2.6 million Explosive Trace Detection (ETD) Program.

The program will provide $143,000 for three additional explosive trace detection machines at Melbourne’s international terminal.

The ETD equipment is a security screening machine which is already used throughout Australia to detect traces of explosives on people and objects.

The investment is part of the Government’s $200 million Strengthening Aviation Security Initiative aimed at protecting Australia’s domestic and international aviation security regime against emerging threats.

Under the initiative, the Government is providing funding for a range of new security screening technologies, including body scanners, multi-view X-ray machines and additional firearms and explosive detector dogs.

The safety and security of Australians is the Government’s highest priority.

With over 130 million passengers flying through Australian skies every year, the Government remains committed to taking the necessary steps to protect Australian citizens and continue our reputation for aviation safety.

I know that the current transport minister is passionately and sincerely concerned about air safety. But it is obvious that the priority of a smooth running public relations sales team is to bury the difficult and pressing issues under layers of gooey feel good easy to cut and paste statements, not challenge the electoral mind in a parliament where the government has a single seat majority, with the problems, nor charge it with a desire to fix them.

If it hadn’t been for significant diplomatic pressure and special pleading Australia would have lost its Level One safety rating with ICAO and more importantly the US Federal Aviation Administration. Substantial efforts are being made to fix those deficiencies, starting with CASA’s own infamously late program of regulatory reforms, but at times that process has thrown up strange decisions that threaten rather than enhance safety.

One of the casualties of that process has been the deliberate striking down of higher Australian safety standards to the levels of ‘world’s best practice’ as a process of international regulatory harmonisation.

A dangerous example of this has been CASA’s approval of the removal of special life rafts from the Qantaslink Dash 8 turbo-props that fly the very long and exposed over water route between Sydney and Lord Howe Island.

Why should Australians flying a Qantas turbo-prop across the sea for around 105 minutes have their life rafts taken away, when wide body domestic jets are fitted with a much higher level of raft capacity even though most of those flights scarcely cross water at all?

The answer appears to be to make us conform with international standards. And to give Qantas an extra row of seats, that in its wisdom, it had for many years sacrificed in order to minimise the obvious special operational risk of the Lord Howe Island route.  CASA spent two weeks preparing what I understood was an answer to this question, only to shrug and walk away.

Reputational damage control appears to be the only plausible explanation of the ATSB having a final report shown as all but complete a year ago on the Norfolk Island ditching of a Pel-Air air ambulance flight and still not having an agreed final report that it can publish.

One of the key issues to be resolved over that incident is why CASA framed a regulation which appears to have been specifically designed to indulge small operators with the right to do incredibly stupid and dangerous things in planning over water flights classified as ‘aerial work.’ (A difficult issue for the head of air safety at CASA, John McCormick, since it happened before he took over, and is presumably one of many, many things he has to undo.)

While the government has substantially improved funding for CASA and the ‘independent’ safety investigator, the ATSB, it is reasonable to argue that both have been short changed, and need more in order to bring the reality of safety in Australian skies up to the same heights as the public perception.

The technical work of the ATSB is outstanding, but also very late.  And at times, lacking in consistency.

There has been a rise in air traffic control incidents which ought not be excused by the rapid expansion of air travel,  given that by any crash statistic flight in  anything larger than a small piston engined commuter aircraft has improved to unprecedented levels of low risk.

In the past 12 months the ATSB has identified quite serious lapses in training and professional standards in AirServices Australia, yet, to date, the response from the Minister’s department concerning the need for an independent inquiry into its performance has been that it is perfectly appropriate for it to inquire into itself. It isn’t.

This is an extract from a report on this  late last year.

On 8 October AirServices Australia cleared a private corporate jet, a Gulfstream IV, to descend through the same flight level that a Virgin Australia 737-800 was cruising at on a crossing path as it took around 180 passengers from  Brisbane to Sydney.

The private jet was on its way to the Gold Coast, and the incident occurred in the air space near Armidale.

The ATSB recently published what is a truly damning report concerning a close encounter between a Qantas Cityflyer 767 (250 seats) and a Tiger Airways A320 (180 seats) above Tamworth  on 1 July last year.

The incident was every bit as serious as two other instances of gross incompetence by AirServices Australia involving a near miss between an Emirates 777 and a Qantas 737-800 on 3 September 2009 and  another involving a Cathay Pacific A330 and a Virgin Blue 737-800 near Darwin on 22 December 2009.

The common element in these reports is that the ATSB found that AirServices Australia had allowed inadequately trained officers to manage the separation of jets carrying hundreds of passengers.

When Plane Talking queried the situation with the office of the Minister for Transport, Anthony Albanese, it was told on the record that it was perfectly appropriate for AirServices Australia to undertake its own reviews of the issues, that public safety wasn’t compromised and, to revert to the short form of words, this writer should get lost.

These serial failures by AirServices Australia raise issues of criminal liability concerning public safety, they require urgent and diligent independent review, they require an action plan to replace a derelict administration of training and safety in AirServices Australia, and above all, they require corrective action before the Minister has to deal with heavy loss of life and an unavoidable Royal Commission.

Whether through approved statements by their chief pilots, or directly from management, all of the major carriers in Australia have expressed dissatisfaction, and even fear, of the risks of a collision in Australian air space, including situations where separation is the responsibility of military controllers where the airlines share an airfield, such as at the Newcastle and Darwin airports and air force bases.

Firing the head of a training college is not the solution to the problem, as happened recently, although it is perhaps a start.

Another operational risk to Australia’s reputation is Jetstar’s apparent serial inability to put competent first officers into its jets, and the ATSB’s reluctance to consistently inquire into major failures of what is known as cockpit resource management or CRM.

The ATSB inquired into an incident in July last year  in which an experienced captain was actually found by Jetstar’s own internal inquiry to have struggled to deal with incompetency on the part of a first officer who seemed to believe in mental telepathy as to who was doing what during an aborted low level approach to Melbourne Airport.

However the ATSB decided not to inquire into a second incident in November last year in which Jetstar employed a first officer so incompetent that the incorrect wing flap setting was twice selected on an approach to Cairns.

If that sort of safety risk is manifested in the cockpit of an Australian airliner the ATSB ought to inquire. Not to inquire adds to the reputational damage recent events have caused to the conduct of aviation administration in this country.

Coming back to the press release that has encouraged this article, I’ve tested positive on about one occasion a year to an explosives trace at an Australian airport for the last two to three years.  I live on a farm, so this isn’t surprising, given possible skin and clothing exposure to traces of fertilisers.   However on each occasion I was asked if I lived or worked on a farm or near chemicals, and re-tested with the wand held backwards so that the problem would go away, making it obvious to me that this is all part of the theatre of airport security, and that if all those who tested positive were detained and thoroughly checked out, the airports would grind to a halt.

It is a charade.

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4 thoughts on “A freudian slip over Australian aviation safety

  1. comet

    Also, the explosives scanners are not compulsory in the first place.

    When the security officer selects a victim, it’s random. Maybe only 1 in 30 people get selected, so chances are that any true offender would be able to slip through.

    Once you’re selected for scanning, the officer asks you if it’s okay for you to be scanned. If you say no, you’re told you won’t be able to catch your flight, and asked to leave the terminal via the front door.

    So, anyone who was really up to ill intent would have a pretty good chance of getting through, and if they were caught, they can walk away via the front door (or worse, use their device in the check-in area of the terminal, as Ben once said in a previous article could happen).

    Regarding Australia’s falling air safety standards, didn’t the FAA rank us as being as unsafe as most 3rd world countries? Didn’t the FAA say it was only fluke that there hasn’t been a major accident in Australia? That news seemed to just fade away, and everyone has forgotten it now. It doesn’t look like CASA has improved at all since then.

  2. Glenn Dunstan

    I never fly Death (Jet) star.


    It is only a matter of time… an ex transport (maritime) safety regulator, I have seen this all before….weak/ineffective enforcement, combined with rapacious management….

    CASA runs around conducting ramp checks on GA….and yet we have Jetstar F/Os who don’t understand flap selection….and why you never dump the flaps in a go-around….this is basic airmanship stuff!

  3. Lofi

    I’ll support trace detection machines when the next blue-eyed 8 year old kid tries to put a bomb on a plane. Till then, it’s a pointless, politically correct farce done purely for show.

  4. TomTom

    Wasn’t the recovery of the QF B747 at Bangkok likewise an exercise in protecting QF’s reputation for air safety, namely expending more resources than otherwise would have been allocated, in order to avoid a lost hull on the record?