A replacement for the ATSB chief commissioner Martin Dolan is expected to be announced by the deputy PM and Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development, Warren Truss, no later than Monday.
At the moment the prime, but unconfirmed person being mentioned for the role in industry circles is Chris Manning, a former Qantas chief pilot also noted for being a safety consultant who guided Tiger Airways toward to the required compliance with Australia’s safety regulations after its grounding by CASA in 2011.
Captain Manning has been a high profile critic of defence handling of air traffic control procedures at shared civil military airports such as Williamtown (Newcastle) and Darwin. He was, at the behest of Qantas, a voice of caution and concern over the use of common radio frequency self separation procedures at busy airports when AirServices Australia had insufficient staff to meet its ATC obligations.
However in his response to the Aviation Safety Regulation Review to parliament last week, the Minister, in accepting almost all of the recommendations, also said an additional commissioner with aviation technical experience would be appointed to the ATSB or Australian Transport Safety Bureau. Captain Manning’s career would make him a strong contender for either appointment, but nothing has been officially confirmed.
The only thing that is certain at this stage is that Mr Dolan is being replaced. In the aftermath of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada’s peer review of the ATSB’s procedures and methodologies in arriving at its controversial and much criticised findings concerning the 2009 Pel-Air ditching near Norfolk Island it is clear that Mr Dolan’s position as chief commissioner is untenable.
While the anodyne version of that quite detailed peer review is that it found that errors had been made by the ATSB the actual document details a shambles in the management of the investigation, and failures to properly collect and assess information.
The ATSB’s accident report was however defended by the current secretary of the department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, Mike Mrdak, and Mr Dolan. A Senate committee that inquired into the conduct of the ATSB (and CASA) in relation to the production of the report unanimously expressed dissatisfaction with Mr Dolan’s testimony.
The committee included coalition senators Bill Heffernan, its chair, and David Fawcett, as well as independent Senator Nick Xenophon, who not only pursued a range of issues in the two aviation authorities, but helped bring to light previously undisclosed documents related to a confidential Pel-Air audit in CASA and associated matters.
Those disclosures reflected adversely on CASA and the ATSB.
The inability of the ATSB under Dolan to adequately and convincingly deal with a relatively minor accident set off a festering controversy that brought the safety investigator and CASA, the regulator, into disrepute. That episode may be coming to an end, but the task of rebuilding respect and ensuring the best safety outcomes in both bodies remains.