A photo handout of INTAS in use at Melbourne Airport

While media attention was understandably diverted elsewhere in Senate Estimates hearings yesterday,  AirServices Australia was given a grilling that raised some very serious safety, competency and integrity issues.

The only way to appreciate what transpired, short of being there, would be to watch a high quality YouTube , or set of same, conveying the hearing before the Senate’s committe on Rural and Regional and Transport affairs, but unfortunately for frustrating technical reasons, such a link is currently not available, and the news clock is ticking on a busy day on other projects and pending announcements.

Two critical failures of the air traffic control system were raised by Senator Nick Xenophon, (Independent, South Australia.)  The most recent, on 13 February, involved a failure of the newly introduced Integrated Tower Automation Suite or INTAS at Melbourne’s main airport to track nine jets that had landed during an interval disrupted by a thunderstorm but been delayed in reaching their gates, which had to be closed because of the close proximity of lightning strikes.

A YouTube of that part of the hearing is available here. The quality of that video is vastly superior to what you will get on the Parliamentary broadcast site.  In it Greg Hood, Airservices Executive General Manager, Air Traffic Control, acknowledges the problem and explains why it will never happen again, unless something inconceivable happens to delay landed jets more than five hours in reaching their gates.

Melbourne Airport may get bad weather, but it isn’t like it’s JFK (New York) or Dulles (Washington DC), where such a weather calamity isn’t unknown.

The more intriguing part of the hearing not available on YouTube came when Senator Xenophon asked Mr Hood about the 12 November 2013 incident in which there was a complex failure of air traffic oversight involving both Melbourne Tullamarine and its smaller and older neighbour Essendon Airport, which is today used by much smaller aircraft including privately owned corporate jets.

This resulted in what AirServices had insisted was a three hour period of a communications breakdown when in fact, it also meant three hours during which aircraft arriving or departing on a particular and well used path at the main airport would not have had assured separation from any movements at nearby Essendon.

The clear direction of Senator Xenophon’s examination of AirServices was that the insistence on calling this a communications breakdown deflected any risk that the public might be told it was a continuous and unacceptable breakdown of safe separation of flights, which continued to use both airports.

A lot of questions on notice were served on AirServices concerning this issue.

As an observation, AirServices needs to be hauled up when it delivers second or third world standards of air traffic control, the more so if it attempts to conceal the severity of the situation in terms of compromising safety.

The old repetitive PR ansewer, safety wasn’t compromised, ought never be accepted until it is tested.

If you want to see that part of the RRAT estimates hearing follow this link, and set the controls to start at 8.50 pm.

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