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.