A Jetstar A320 similar to the one involved in the Gold Coast incident
A Jetstar A320 similar to the one involved in the Gold Coast incident

Perspective

If Australia had an ATSB air crash investigator with the resources and courage to promptly deal with pressing incidents that exposed the public to severe dangers, our skies would be much safer.

The most recent example is reported in this Sydney Morning Herald account of an arriving Jetstar A320 and a departing AirAsia X A330 coming within 152 metres of each other close to the Gold Coast airport on July 21.

That specified lack of separation could not be independently confirmed earlier today, but the triggering of traffic collision avoidance system or TCAS  resolution advisory warnings in both airliners with a combined count of more than 520 seats near a high profile Australian airport demands more than an ATSB estimate of an inquiry report being issued by July 2017.

The quotes from a Jetstar spokesman in the media report make the official notification from the ATSB look like part of its apparent policy of downplaying all incidents that could have ended in major loss of life.

Does the ATSB really expect that public interest to be served by not identifying, very early, whether the airliners were directed to fly towards each other in such a dangerous manner, or whether instructions were not followed by one of the aircraft?  Or indeed, if some additional unexpected factor contributed to the situation? These questions could and should be answered in an interim or preliminary report no later than 30 days after the occurrence of such an incident.

Delays in reports, and downplaying of their importance, have become characteristic of the ATSB for at least nine years, after it failed to pursue a situation where a REX turboprop was flown almost all the way from Wagga Wagga to Sydney on a single engine, with passengers onboard.

The Pel-Air crash of 2009 led to the issuing of a totally discredited and subsequently withdrawn report into the ditching near Norfolk Island of a corporate jet performing a medical flight. Despite scathing Senate Committee findings into that scandal, which involved evidence of the covering up of failed regulatory oversight by CASA, and a damning independent review of the ATSB by its Canadian counterpart, and a direction by Government to conduct a fresh inquiry, Pel-Air is still a crash without a final investigative report.

The ATSB attitude to the directions of government is something like waiting for hell to freeze over.

More recently the ATSB issued a Correcting the Record attack on a Sydney Morning Herald account of the failure of Virgin Australia to keep track of the safe operations of one of its turbo-prop ATRs. (Scroll down on the above link to find the offending entry.)

While the Sydney Morning Herald seems happy to hang the author of a totally fair and accurate report out to dry,  the ATSB response is unacceptable, and avoids the core issue in the article by Aubrey Martin. Like numerous posts in Plane Talking before, Mr Martin points out that an Australian registered turbo-prop, with 68 passenger seats, was allowed to fly 13 sectors over five days following damage to its tail, before Virgin Australia discovered that it was so badly bent it had to be grounded at Albury.

It was nothing but luck that stopped Virgin Australia killing dozens of passengers through a failure to ensure the safe operational conditions of part of its fleet. This failure of oversight by the carrier would have been reason to suspend the regional turbo-prop arm of the airline by CASA, and shouts for a need for urgent attention by the ATSB.

No such action has been taken, adding to legitimate concerns that Australia has second world standards when it comes to the public administration of air safety.

Seen from outside, the ATSB is under resourced. It is also more than three years since the ATSB began inquiring into the circumstances which caused a Qantas and a Virgin Australia 737 to land in dense fog at Mildura with very little remaining fuel reserves when both had originally intended to complete flights to Adelaide.

That set of incidents raised significant questions about the regulations concerning the fueling of domestic flights in this country. Yet despite a detailed interim report, the ATSB has yet to deal with this critical underlying issue in the Mildura fog emergency that overtook flights by Australia’s major domestic carriers and put hundreds of lives in peril.

The ATSB is there to make flying safer in Australia, not to bury or avoid matters that may embarrass the airlines and their regulator and air traffic services provider.

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