The late night flight in June 2011 when Tiger Airways flew illegally low over the Leopold housing estates near Geelong and caused CASA to ground the low cost carrier is detailed in the ATSB’s final report into the incident released today.
While it may be just a footnote in the unhappy early history of Tiger in Australia when seen from 2013, it could have become a smoking hole in a suburb, and for the safety regulator which had become increasingly frustrated by the dismissive attitudes of the airline’s management to its concerns, this was the last straw.
Once CASA became aware of what had happened it grounded Tiger on 2 July 2011, and gave it only conditional approval to resume flying more than five weeks later on 10 August.
Today, rebranded as Tigerair, and with its Australian domestic franchise 60% owned by Virgin Australia, the airline is very different from the shambles it had become when it was 100% Singapore owned by Tiger Airways Holdings.
In its final report into the incident, the ATSB finds that the Tiger A320 approaching Avalon Airport was being flown in accordance with Tiger operational documents that were materially incorrect in relation to airspace south of its single runway, and did not specifically deal with the complete go-around procedure that the crew adopted after they made an initial approach from the north.
The tower at Avalon was closed for the night. In consultation with AirServices Australia, the crew flew over the runway and south over Corio Bay, initiating a tear drop shaped return to make a visual approach to the runway to the north.
At the bottom of the tear drop the jet flew over Leopold, at 1600 feet or 400 feet below the safe minimum altitude of 2000 feet. There was a high work load in the cockpit. One pilot was trying to reprogram a cockpit computer while the other called for assistance in completing the turn.
As the ATSB reports, the AirServices controller detected and queried the breach of minimum altitude, but did not issue a safety alert “which meant that the aircraft remained at heightened risk for an extended period of time”.
The full report (as distinct from the anodyne media summary) leaves readers with no room to doubt that this was not a well executed go-around and landing at Geelong, especially in the dark, flying visual under a high workload, to an incomplete and incorrect operational procedure set down by Tiger, too low over houses.
It is no surprise CASA acted. It had for months been talking to Tiger’s then management about the need for effective internal safety procedures in the airline’s administration in Melbourne, rather than delegating such functions to its Singapore headquarters. Then it had this. It was, as was made clear to curious media back on the night of the grounding, plug pulling time.
The grounding coincided with Tony Davis, the then group CEO of Tiger Holdings , saying that he would decide what parts of Australia’s safety regulations the carrier would obey. Davis was arrogant, he was wrong, and for his Singaporean masters, a very expensive mistake.
Tigerair is now moving on from that disastrous beginning. But it is still probably paying for it, as the brand damage it did to itself in 2011 gradually recedes over the horizon of history.