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air safety

Sep 9, 2013

Air safety failures will dog Albanese as Labor leader or contender

Ex deputy PM and Infrastructure and Transport Minister Anthony Albanese carries some excess baggage related to the Pel-Air crash fiasco and the abuse of due process he tolerated in CASA


Ex deputy PM and Infrastructure and Transport Minister Anthony Albanese carries some excess baggage related to the Pel-Air crash fiasco and the abuse of due process he tolerated in CASA and the ATSB should he contest or win the Labor leadership, as widely speculated today.

Albanese had an outstanding term as minister in those portfolios in relation to rail and roads, and a dismal record when it came to his responsibilities in relation to air safety in this country.

The evidence for this is on the parliamentary record in the proceedings of the recent Senate committee inquiry into the ATSB’s investigation into the crash of a Pel-Air ambulance flight near Norfolk Island in 2009.

While the jet involved was a small Westwind, and no one died (miraculously) the accident gave rise to a series of appalling disclosures of deliberate malpractice in the two aviation authorities, the safety regulator, CASA and the accident investigator, the ATSB.

The findings of the Senate committee support fears that neither body has the integrity of management nor the technical skills or the commitments to aviation safety that most Australians would take for granted as being delivered and maintained on their behalf.

The incoming government need go no further than to obtain a briefing from Senator David Fawcett, (Liberal, South Australia) who with his state’s independent Senator, Nick Xenophon, pursued and disinterred a rotten state of affairs in both bodies which ought to be of considerable concern to whomever becomes the minister responsible for aviation in the Abbott Government.

The findings of the committee include an entire chapter detailing its dissatisfaction with the testimony given by the chief commissioner of the ATSB, Martin Dolan.

Anthony Albanese had a responsibility to parliament to respond to the Senate report in 90 days, and late in May gave such a commitment in the clearest of terms, yet he did not honour his word.

Senator Fawcett made a measured speech concerning the state of affairs in relation to the Pel-Air crash which should be read in conjunction with the committee’s final report.

While aspects of the crash, its investigation, and the Senate’s own inquiries have been reported at great length in Plane Talking, these are among the main matters:-

CASA withheld from the ATSB, contrary to the wording of the Transport Safety Investigation Act, an internal document related to the crash which revealed that had CASA carried out its duties of oversight in relation to Pel-Air, it may have prevented the accident happening.

The Director of Safety for CASA, John McCormick, admitted in testimony that he withheld the document, saying inter alia that he didn’t think it mattered to the investigation the ATSB was conducting, and that he didn’t want to pollute its deliberations.

The documentation that McCormick withheld containing damning evidence of CASA’s inadequacy and incompetence as a safety regulator.

The documents reveals that Pel-Air the operator of the crashed jet was in multiple serious breaches of its air operators certificate at the time of the crash, and that it had no rigorous fuel policy for oceanic flights like that being performed by the Pel-Air jet.

The Senate inquiry, comprising Senators of all parties, heard that the ATSB report into what was the world’s first ditching of a fully functioning Westwind jet (but which was about to run out of fuel) failed to make any safety recommendations even though all of the safety equipment on board the aircraft failed to work as intended.

It also learned that the ATSB had declined to recover the flight data recorder from the wreckage, which lies at a recoverable depth near Norfolk Island, and which should have established what meteorological updates were given to the pilot during a flight that had started in Apia, and whether that information was in fact correct.

The captain of the jet, Dominic James, says he did not become aware of the deteriorated state of the weather at his intended refueling stop at Norfolk Island until after he had flown passed the last point of opportunity to divert to airports in Noumea or Fiji.

(After four missed approaches and nearing fuel exhaustion, he made a controlled ditching at sea, while all of the aircraft’s controls and systems had the benefit of full power).

The ATSB’s final report into the Pel-Air crash stitched up the pilot for incorrectly fueling the flight, ignored the systemic issues in CASA, and does not meet the expectations of the international air safety community in alerting it to safety issues or deficiencies in a particular type of aircraft.

The Pel-Air report is a festering embarrassment in Australia’s once unquestioned place as a first tier state in relation to air safety.

It is an embarrassment Albanese carries with him should be seek Labor leadership, and it is a matter needing urgent attention by his ministerial successor in the new government.

The remedying of the Pel-Air report, and the reform of the ATSB and CASA ought to be the top priorities of the incoming minister.


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11 thoughts on “Air safety failures will dog Albanese as Labor leader or contender

  1. comet

    I think both major parties are to blame.

    The rot set in during the Howard government. The rot was perpetuated by the inaction of the Rudd/Gillard governments.

    The mainstream media didn’t seem to care. Air safety didn’t dominate the commercial media, and was basically off-the-radar for most voters. Therefore, damage to those politicians involved was negligible.

    If Abbott is really serious about air safety, he will initiate some sackings at the CASA and the ATSB in his first week on the job. Let’s see what happens. Will the inaction continue?

  2. wildsky

    Hopefully Senator Fawcett will become a Parliamentary Secretary for Aviation, assisting Warren Truss as Minister for Infrastructure and Transport (or whatever it will become). Then we will be able to measure both of them for their follow-up on the clear direction that they indicated before the election as to what needs to be done to sort things out.

    For a number of reasons, it may be that public hangings are not the best look for the incoming Government and that quiet reshuffles and early retirements may be the way to go. In any event, the next round of Senate Estimates should be entertaining to say the least.

    As for the public awareness of aviation safety, it is something of a conundrum: it will take a serious accident to get the attention of the general public and thus elevate it on the political agenda, yet we will have all failed if it ever gets to that point! Let’s hope that Senators Xenophon and Fawcett can create more true believers among their peers and get the job done without the agenda being driven by the hysterical aftermath of a serious accident.

  3. patrick kilby

    If Albo is the leader the Tories will have a public enquiry over the next year or so to provide a slow drip of evidence of neglect if not incompetance against Albo to undermine him: if it is Bill Shorten they won’t.

  4. Kate Demonstration

    John Anderson (ex-Minister for Transport under Howard) was until very recently the Charmain of Pel


    and until recently he was still on the Nationals executive – try google.

  5. Phil Here

    Let’s not forget that Albanese was made fully aware prior to the release of the ATSB report that the report was factually incorrect and that he chose not to intervene. Let’s also not forget that Albanese was made aware prior to the release of the ATSB report that the writer of the report and the ATSB Head of Aviation Investigations had also been informed that the report they were about to release was factually incorrect. Despite these massive failings, the investigator, the Head of Aviation Investigations, the heads of the ATSB and CASA, and Albanese are all still employed despite their incompetence! Dominic James, on the other hand, lost his job at Pel-Air.

  6. Ben Sandilands

    I did raise with the ex Minister’s minders that the treatment of James amounted to persecution and a deliberate and officially endorsed miscarriage of natural justice.

    I also asked more than once if this was ‘the Labor way’. If it is the Labor way, it is repugnent and unjust, and it’s all on the parliamentary record, and there is no escaping it.

  7. patrick kilby

    Phil, Albanese is still employed but in a different job now, and this will come back to haunt him in his new job, whatever it is but in particular if it is the top job in the opposition

  8. Burke Stephens

    Given that our federal pollies and public servants are probably the most frequent fliers in the nation, one would have thought they’d pay close(r) attention to aviation safety out of self interest if for nothing else..

    I for one, have been shocked at the different rules for fuel reserves for domestic flying vis a vis international flights into and out of Australia (Mildura diversion incident and last year’s Virgin flight from Sydney into Perth in stormy weather, I was actually listening to ATC of the incident in real time and it was scary listening to the pilots and ATC canvassing the pretty much non-existent options at Perth for them being Jandakot and Rottnest.. Pearce RAAF was too far..).

  9. comet

    Ah, you might mean Virgin 697. Melbourne – Perth, January 3, 2013. Boeing 737.

    Rottnest and Jandakot runways are both approximately 1200m long. Kalgoorlie is 538km away. Very scary incident.

  10. Fred

    The Coalition Aviation Policy released last week gives an indication of what the new Government will do.

  11. Kate Demonstration

    Hello Ben

    You might have some sort of animosity towards Anthony Albanese, but I would suggest that the incoming administration may not be interested in re-opening the Pel Air enquiry.

    As you say, the pilot was blamed, and the Company was not criticised.

    The head of Pel Air was John Anderson.

    He had been federal Transport Minister, and was still on the executive of the National Party

    One could assume that he would have had good links to the various transport safety bodies.

    I would suggest that there could have been a conflict of interest.

    I can’t see Warren Truss going there…

    And while I am ranting…

    I can remember the enquiry into the third runway at Kingsford Smith, as I am sure you can.

    The airline industry (including ‘air correspondents’) said that a third runway would avoid the need for a second airport.

    They said…

    It would provide adequate future capacity
    They could live with the curfew and hourly limits
    A close parallel runway would not restrict capacity
    No problem with peak hour access by regional carriers

    Hawke/Keating made the decision, but Brereton was pushed out to take the flak.

    (I assume Peter Abeles, Bob Hawkes good friend, would have given his opinion)

    It was fairly obvious then, as it seems to be now, that it was a short-sighted decision.

    This was pre-internet, so we can’t google what you said at the time.

    I would suggest that many observers think that the airline industry can live with the mess – this is what they wanted.


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