air safety

Dec 13, 2012

Australia’s air traffic shambles about more than Xmas

While it is good to see media reports about how co

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

While it is good to see media reports about how concerned the airlines are with air traffic control delays at Sydney Airport this Christmas, the real story is the dangers posed to travellers by a badly run, dishonest and unsafe system that is a serious and immediate threat to public safety. These strong words are not a matter of opinion but fact. They have been supported on Plane Talking  by the publishing of an internal memo by a manager at Sydney Airport, by a screen grab of an amended incident notification in which a Virgin Australia 737-800 was 'lost' for almost its entire flight between Sydney and Brisbane, and the fulsome quotation and reproduction of documents posted by the ATSB in the course of numerous investigations into serious incidents including some where the duty officer concerned was not currently trained to the required standard to be performing duties which keep passenger airliners apart. Why do these matters persist? Opinions vary, but for this observer the critical flaw arises at the place where all the bucks stop when the big bang occurs, in the responsible minister's office. Not the responsible minister in this or future governments personally, but in the lack of a mechanism that will stop them being fed the most purile lies and deceptions by departmental officers and so called advisory staff, for whom the notion of actually telling a minister the truth is either culturally or technically impossible. I have over the years encountered ministerial advisers who didn't know the difference between an Airbus and an Embraer, but had an acutely accurate awareness of how the numbers worked in which factions in government or opposition. The advice that goes to ministers is essentially about policy settings and power within a party, and how to spin feel good messaging via earnest platitudinous speeches that are binned by the entire press gallery on receipt, for the worthless dribble that they are. In this situation truly dangerous realities are allowed to spread like cancer through the administration of public policy until one day, something shocking happens, be it in our corporate governance laws, health policy, defence acquisition, or air safety in so far as preventable calamities are concerned. In the matter of air traffic control in Australia, the shocking is being flirted with time and again, without any sign of improvement, although some important changes in management are acknowledged and welcomed pending any evidence emerging that it is just business as usual, which will most likely prove tragic in its consequences. Since some of the earlier stories have appeared here concerning the loss of an Etihad jet for hours while it flew through Australian air space, and the more recent Virgin Australia fiasco, a number of controllers have attacked this writer for drawing attention to matters that were claimed to have been overblown or not nearly as important as made out, or a case of  'she'll be right mate'.  These people are a menace to public safety and should not be tolerated in the air traffic control system, although in my opinion they are a product of bad management, and show how over time such management will severely erode the safety values and culture of an organisation. As reported much earlier this year:
Airservices Australia has repeatedly demonstrated its unreliability in performing its role of safely separating airliners movements and has been caught lying about its most recent loss of all surveillance of a Virgin Australia 737-800 for most of a flight between Sydney and Brisbane. That sequence of events, and the inability of its management to tell the truth or even recognise the severe risk Airservices poses to the safety of flight in Australian airspace is documented here, with links that follow the incident and the lies told about it. The air traffic control system in Australia is in crisis. It is unacceptably dangerous. It has been found delinquent in its training standards. It cannot be trusted to tell the truth. And its former CEO left amid controversy about his use of credit cards, as detailed under privilege in the recent Senate estimates hearings and other statements already on the public record. In the course of this year alone Airservices Australia has not only lost a Virgin Australia airliner, but an Etihad jet flying across the centre of the continent, and been found by the ATSB to have vectored another domestic flight and a VIP jet onto head on paths through controller error. The issues at AirServices Australia include low standards of competency, inadequate oversight of recurrent training, undermanning, fatigue,  and the loss of skilled operatives to foreign air traffic control services providers. The risks posed to air travellers have arisen both in controlled airspace, and from the closure of sections of controlled airspace because of staff shortages, resulting in a mixture of scheduled airliners, charter and freight operators and general aviation sector flyers all being required to listen to each other on a commonly designated radio frequency and arrange their safe movements among themselves, including during positioning on runways at airports without tower controls. It is a national scandal. And a very dangerous and unacceptable scandal.

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