air safety

Feb 15, 2017

Just how good or bad is Australia at managing air traffic control safety?

It seems that air safety in Australia remains entirely a matter of business efficiency and $$$ government fees

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

Airservices is supposed be about safety, not about being a business. No?

Today’s troubling report about the safety of air traffic control in Australia on ABC News is definitely not just another union inspired story warning that job losses in this or that public service will end in a disastrous loss of life.

In this case the jobs, at Airservices Australia, are gone. They aren’t coming back. The omlette can’t be unscrambled.

‘Our jobs or your life’ became a worn out cliche riddled art form trotted out by organised labour and media before anyone alive today was born when modernisation began to threaten guard’s van on trains and signals were levered into position by physical force.

If any of the inspirations for the ABC story are actively involved in safely keeping aircraft apart then air travellers have every reason to be worried about their being sufficiently alert or ‘agile’ to perform such tasks.

But this isn’t the case. Most of the jobs that were lost were in administration, and were regarded as parasitic or superfluous to the core task of stopping the flight you may about to board this morning from coming too close to another flight at various stages of their respective intercity trips.

The legitimate concern, however well or poorly based, is whether or not the loss of back office jobs as Airservices Australia calls them, has adversely affected safety.

There was a period earlier this century when the safety investigator, the ATSB, seemed to be struggling to keep up with ‘separation incidents’ in which it identified controller fatigue and even a lack of proper training as factors in jets receiving transponder triggered TCAS potential collision warnings.

Such incidents continue to occur, there was one involving two Qantas aircraft in the vicinity of Brisbane airport recently, and there continue to be incidents which occur outside actively monitored airspace which also raise important questions about the design of airspace boundaries and the practices they involve in this country.

But the official response has for some time been that the actual incidence of proximity events in Australian airspace is no longer statistically different to the situation in busy air traffic corridors covered by similar ATC technology elsewhere in the world.

This is difficult terrain for the media to navigate, which the ABC story carefully and fairly covers.  There are continuing problems in Australian airspace, it is possible that progress has been made, and as Senator Xenophon has identified in the past, some of those screw ups should never, ever have been allowed to occur, and need to be prevented from happening in the future.

The whole issue of air traffic control safety is rendered opaque by government indifference, as in this government, and its Labor predecessors. In Government eyes, Airservices Australia is a fee collecting revenue raising entity supposedly run along private industry lines.

It has never been possible to get a sensible engagement with the safety issues of ATC control from any Coalition or Labor minister since AirServices Australia began to operate as a commercial entity measured solely by its contribution to the Federal Budget. It is doubtful that any minister this century possessed even the most basic of understanding of how air traffic control works, and where changes in technology will take it (perhaps) beyond the crap that appears in press releases directed by Mandarins.

The inherent problem with the supremacy of management over old fashioned and highly inconvenient safety cultures is that management will screw down and stress the human resources of bodies like AirServices Australia until ‘something’ breaks.

That ‘something’ could end up in a stinking pile of body bags and shattered airliner parts, and wipe out a few high profile CEOs, a sporting team or two, and a few dozens of working class punters, and maybe even cause a few by-elections.

There is a serious lack of Executive oversight of safety outcomes in Australian aviation, and for that matter, road haulage, and one day, as people like Senator Xenophon have often pointed out, it might bite all of us very badly.

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25 thoughts on “Just how good or bad is Australia at managing air traffic control safety?

  1. comet

    So what’s going on?

    Air Services says it’s only backroom jobs that are being cut. Air traffic controllers say the cutbacks are endangering lives.

    It’s hard to get a picture of what’s really happening.

    1. Dan Dair

      What is it that these administration staff actually do.?

      Clearly, there is almost always room to cut something back.?
      However, if you’re cutting the ‘back-room’ staff & turning that work over to front-line controllers to do, in addition to their ATC duties, it really does look like a recipe for disaster.?

      IF the worst should happen & it can be shown that the controller is at fault,
      will the Government or AirServices hold up their hands & admit that they’ve cut back a little too far,
      or will they cover-their-own-arses & dutifully hang the controller out to dry.?

      …Thought so.

  2. bushby jane

    Did Dick Smith have anything to do with the cutbacks and indifference of recent govts you speak of?

  3. Dan Dair

    A couple of points / questions;
    I assume that TCAS incidents are logged & reported the world over.?
    How does Australia do on that scale, by comparison with other 1st & 2nd world countries.? (I include 2nd, as Sydney & Melbourne aside, the nation isn’t exactly brimming with LAX’s or LHR’s, so I’m thinking about how you’d compare like-with-like)
    I’m sure I remember an AirServices or ATSB official saying something like; TCAS incidents were OK as that’s what TCAS was there for. It’s only when it becomes something more that it ‘s not OK.? (perhaps I made that up or read my own words into a similar statement.?)
    I think you Ben, should be applauded for making a positive point (in the context of this negative issue about AirServices) about the controller at Cairns who redirected the TigerAir aircraft when they’d got themselves into the wrong runway access point.
    There will be all different levels of talent working as ATC controllers, but I’m confident that every single one of them does & wants to do their very best every day.
    IMO it’s good to be able to find someone who’s done a particularly good thing & shout about it.!

  4. George Glass

    Pressure is building up across the system,mainly due to third world infrastructure. Melbourne; ludicrous delays caused by single runway operations due 3 knot tailwind on runway 27. Holding goes from 10 minutes to 45 minutes with no explanation or warning. Sydney; holding due noise sharing (!?!?!?) on a cavok day. International carriers asked to “require” landing on 16R rather than crosswind landing on 07. Perth,Brisbane both embarrassing listening to Longhaul operators negotiating landing on Runway 24 with 25 knot crosswind while runway 21 closed all day for works that should be done at night. Sounds esoteric I know but Australia is setting itself up for a major incident. Third world infrastructure, idiot short sighted clueless politicians. Weak administrators. The subsequent Royal Commision is going to be gruesome.

  5. TJ

    Hi Ben seems to me that you have been pulled in with the “Non Operational” rubbish put out by ASA. It all depends on what you class as operational. They are classing tech’s who fix and maintain the equipment that lets the ATC do there job as non operational, in the last 3 months there has been over 2000 years worth of experience lost there. They class the trainers at the ATC school in Melbourne as non operational and most of them have left. They are in the process of being replaced with operational ATC that have been taken from operational roles. Of the rumoured target of 900 to go they are all out of a pool of around 2000 people, I ask how can this be done without affecting the service. This has all come out of a review carried out by an accountancy firm and they are trying to make ASA like a corporate company but it cannot be it is a service where safety has always come first not $$$$$$
    The carnage is not over yet the way they are heading is like Telstra where equipment does not get maintained to anywhere near the standard it always has it just gets used until it breaks then eventually replaced, I ask everyone how this works with the service Telstra now provides compared to what they used to, during the recent power outages in SA the phones went down in a mater of hours due to the poor state of backup systems, are we happy with this level of service on our air navigation systems?
    I have a great fear with the path ASA is heading down it is only a mater of time until there is a major incident just hope it is not a A380 full of people ………..

    1. Ben Sandilands

      The examples you give are very worrying and need to be examined by a serious inquiry. I think our views may be a bit closer than you believe. My concern is that the commercial requirements have washed right over the top of the service and safety culture concept at the air navigation provider, and I hope I made that clear. Competition and enterprise are great except when it comes to a monopoly market. The public can chose its airline in many places, but the airlines can’t chose their ATC providers, and can’t put up the 10 am from Melbourne to Brisbane for tender. An alarming and universal characteristic of governments in Australia is that they are obsequiously attached to unresponsive and dismissive bureaucracies and without any rigorous independent auditing of such vital matters as providing safe and reliable as well as affordable services. We are being sleepwalked into catastrophe.

    2. comet

      TJ, if what you say is true (and I believe it is), then AirServices Australia is deceiving the Australian public by moving frontline air traffic controllers into other areas.

      1. TJ

        The next wave is coming, apparently there are executive level meetings going on with price waterhouse coopers re the future of all technical staff and outsourcing maintenance. It fills me with confidence that the follow the direction of a accountancy firm in regard to air navigation !! I keep waiting for sanity to prevail but I fear it will not.

  6. Tango

    I have seen this all too manhy times.
    Whats distressing is the agneicy bring it on themselves in a lot of ways by being bloated.

    But I and my brother worked for State govnement in two vastly different jobs.

    Mine was consriaton, well run, well managed and I never worked harder at any other job in myh life (thogh one guyh kept saying how easy we had it!) . And I have worked some damned hard jobs.

    My brother was in com tech keeping microwave system running.

    They farmed it out, he made a heck of a lot more moneyh by transfien over to the people who got the contarct.

    So, how much was savied? Nothing.

    Somewhere there is a balance, where its got out of boudns is everyone beats on the State secotr jobsw.

    Haivng worked both, I can tell you that private is just as mucked uip as state, its just they are mucked up in different area.

    And I have seen people in private who were drunks, unreliable, etc etc keep their jobs when they should have been canned.

    So the thing about not begin able to get rid of poor government employees has its flip side.

    US is talking about changing system and with ju8stifcfaiton as the FAA here has mucked up the transition awfully.

    Is the cure worse than the disease?

    And guess who invented the first ADS-B system (it was not called that)

    CAPSTONE, make in Alaska by the FAA regional division due to the major amount of flying (huge amounts of small aircraft) and the high accident rate due to bad weather and unforgiving terrain.

    My dad worked for CAAA and FAA. We did ok, out in the toolies of Alaska and far from Medical or resources. Great place to grow up but very hard on the folks trying to raise and educate kids.

    An awful lot of government people do a very good job.

  7. comet

    Australia’s air safety, in so many areas, is becoming third world.

    Apart from the high risk of carnage and lives lost, imagine the aftermath when the world learns that a major air crash in Australia was caused by third world ATC and regulatory standards.

    Australia’s billion dollar tourism industry would be hit hard. In fact, the knowledge that air travel in Australia is unsafe would turn other businesses away.

  8. 40years

    Comet, explain how Australian ATC is ‘third world’ when they use all the ICAO separation methods and airspace used by what you would term ‘first world’ nations, ie procedural, radar, ADSC and ADSB. All these methods are used where appropriate by Noth America, EU and Asian nations. Show us how Australia is deficient.

    1. Dan Dair

      40 Years,
      It’s not the procedures and the rule-books they use,
      it how those rules & procedures are implemented. (or not)

      AirServices is not & can never be a business.
      It is a monopoly service-provider. It carries no passengers, owns no aircraft or airports and only owns a minuscule percentage of the capital invested in Australian aviation.
      However, the bright-sparks in government & AirServices management think that there is profit to be made from it.

      The only safe & sensible way of making AirServices profitable would be on a ‘cost-plus’ basis.
      At the start of each financial year, the investment strategy, maintenance strategy, wages-costs and contingency fund are all defined.
      That figure is then divided by the anticipated volume of aircraft movements & the airlines or airports are then charged a fee for the year.
      (How it is collected & whether it can be paid quarterly etc. is another matter)
      Any margin for profit MUST be on top of these agreed factors which firmly put passenger safety FIRST.
      Put a dollar per commercial aircraft movement on top & call that your profit, but don’t think that cutting back on operational staff in order to generate a profit-margin can also be safe all of the time.
      Safe most of the time isn’t good enough.

      That one percent of time, when you really need a safety margin & haven’t got it is when two aircraft divert to Mildura to land blind & hopeful in thick fog.
      It’s just not good enough. That’s what you’d expect in parts of Africa or South America, not in Australia.

      1. 40years

        Dan, in a simple sense the fee-setting is as you describe. The problem arises when the ‘clients’ contest the set fee levels and head off to the ACCC. Add to that the required dividend payable to the government and the result is the subject of your complaint. There are examples around the world of private or corporatised ANSPs, with mixed outcomes. However, do you really want to revert to a public service department running ATC? Back to the days of competing within and without departments for your budget, staff establishments 3 or more years behind requirements, resulting in controllers all acting on ‘higher duties’ within a PS Grade structure, managers arguing over who was eligible for carpet in their office… I could go on, but you get the idea. How would safety fare under that regime, given the demands of current day industry. Don’t mention DCA – it was ok for it’s time, but the response rate needed for change and working with industry just wouldn’t happen under a departmental structure.
        The Mildura incident was not the fault of ATC.

        1. Dan Dair

          With respect, someone told both flights to divert to Mildura because of bad weather at Adelaide.

          Anyway, I don’t think I’m taking issue with you.
          I’m reflecting upon a structure which seems to be inadequate for the purpose to begin with & then they’re cutting back on staff;
          and if ‘TJ’ is correct, front line staff are affected by the current reorganisation, even if they’re not losing their jobs.

          There aren’t nearly enough ILS systems in Australia. There isn’t enough actual radar coverage of the interior. IMO there are too many commercial airports without any ATC staff actually at the airport, etc, etc, etc.
          That’s just about the infrastructure.

          Cut back the staffing-levels & make actual control staff do more work or have less admin backup & I think it’s asking for trouble.

          Surely, the ATSB or CASA have to sign-off on these changes.
          What have their collective reactions been.?

          1. JW (aka James Wilson)

            Nobody ‘told’ both aircraft to divert to Mildura. They elected to do so on the basis of met reports that indicated the weather was suitable for landing. The root cause was inadequate weather forecasting that did not predict the likelihood of fog, together with fuel planning regulations that don’t require the carriage of alternate fuel.

          2. Dan Dair

            You’re correct, of course.
            Presumably, no-one told the two pilots that the weather at Mildura was worse than Adelaide.?
            Presumably also, no-one at Mildura was available for comment when Adelaide control or the meteorological dept gave the two pilots that incorrect information.?
            Is it possible that a better organised and staffed ATC would have been able prevent that incident, or was it really unpreventable & unavoidable.?

          3. JW (aka James Wilson)


            Regarding your earlier post at 6:34am:
            1. The weather at Mildura was not worse than Adelaide at the time the aircraft diverted. The weather was ok until shortly before the aircraft arrived overhead, at which time it rapidly deteriorated (within 5 minutes) below the minimum required for landing. The possibility of a significant deterioration was not forecast.
            2. The met reports (ie observations of actual weather) correctly showed the weather was ok at the time of each report. However, the forecast did not predict the possibility of a subsequent deterioration in the weather. IIRC, a BoM observer at Mildura reported the deteriorating conditions, but by that time the aircraft were already overhead Mildura with no fuel left to divert anywhere else.
            3. A control tower at Mildura would certainly have facilitated better communication of the deteriorating conditions to the aircraft, however, given the speed at which it all happened, the crews might still have run out of options. Fog is notoriously difficult to predict, but if the forecast had been more accurate then the crews would probably have elected to stay at Adelaide where they could have done an ILS to an autoland. That would have been a far safer option, even though the weather was below the minima.

            I’m sure we’d all like to have more control towers and ILS facilities at airports around Australia, but somebody has to pay and that kind of infrastructure doesn’t come cheap. There’s not a lot of point in the regulator imposing new regulations and charges on the airlines if it ends up killing the industry in the process. Have a look at what’s happening in the GA world for an example of how over-regulation and cost recovery has ruined a once vibrant sector. The challenge is trying to find the balance between safety and what the industry can actually afford to pay, while providing mitigations to ensure that an appropriate level of safety is maintained.

          4. Dan Dair

            James Wilson,
            So, since we appear to be generally of the same mindset, my question is;
            Are we (& the powers that be, both in aviation & regulation) content that the Mildura incident happened.?
            Clearly it was not inevitable or preventable, but it was a consequence of predictable circumstances and a chain of events.

            There isn’t a control tower at Mildura,
            There isn’t ILS at Mildura.
            It has a reputation for Fog (in the right (wrong) circumstances)
            & the weather there is known to be unpredictable.

            But based on accurate but very directional remote weather readings & an inaccurate general forecast, two passenger airliners were diverted from an ILS option at their chosen destination, to a VFR (which turned-out to be in really, really bad weather) landing at their alternate.?

            How can that possibly make any sense to anyone as being acceptable.?

            OK, it might no be directly attributable to the ATC or AirServices on the day, but it must ‘flag up’ a massive hole in the protocols which govern the operating procedures of commercial airliners within Australia.?

            The safety management authorities of other Western nations would be jumping up & down in rage if this had happened on their watch.
            But CASA or the ATSB seem unperturbed that two 180 seat airliners landed ‘blind’ & with no fuel reserves.
            I have to give full credit to the flight crews of both airliners, who successfully & safely put their aircraft onto the runway at Mildura in worse than marginal weather.
            (I might yet take back some of those plaudits, if it is shown that they should have known better than divert in the first place.??)

            if there was a plan in place to upgrade all of Australias’ commercial airports to have at least one ILS-capable runway
            which was begun, based-upon an incident-related index, or a register of total days or hours the airport was unavailable, due to poor weather,
            at least you could say that AirServices had acknowledged the problem & were working (slowly) to remedy it.?

            Unfortunately, the situation seems to be,
            ‘Oh, the country & the passengers can’t afford it, so lets not worry about it until there’s a major disaster’.
            At which point the government will undoubtedly put in a significant range of requirements, not all of which might be strictly necessary, but which the airlines will be forced to pay-out for one way or another.

            Doesn’t it make so much more sense for CASA or the ATSB to start to drive the safety agenda with the airlines, rather than be in their back-pocket.?
            From a government point of view, I’d have thought that they’d be looking to make sure their collective arses were covered.?
            If it all goes ‘tits-up’ in a big way, the airlines can say; “well we were fully complying with the regulatory authorities, it’s not our fault if they’ve not provided us with a substantial safety protocol.?”
            And at that point, the judicial system will take the easy route of making the government substantially responsible for the failings of its regulators,
            as opposed to it being the airlines fault for bullying the regulators into agreeing with what the airlines wanted.?
            So the taxpayers will pick up the bills for the loss-of-lives, not the airlines.?

            Perhaps the wives & husbands / partners of the deceased flight-crews might be able to get a substantial & game-changing compensation from the state under those circumstances, which might make the government sit-up & take notice about what its role in this situation really ought to be.?

  9. JW (aka James Wilson)


    What happened at Mildura was not acceptable and, in my view, the authorities’ response was unsatisfactory. The ATSB, in its incident investigation report, made some recommendations to improve the dissemination of met reports to aircraft, but beyond that, very little. I don’t believe those recommendations go anywhere near far enough towards preventing another Mildura-type incident.

    Air transport will always involve an element of risk; the question is how do we best reduce that risk to an acceptable level? Do we provide costly infrastructure that, given Australia’s mostly benign weather, will rarely be required; or do we build other mitigations into the system to help reduce risk?

    I’d suggest that upgrading ‘all of Australia’s commercial airports to have at least one ILS-capable runway’ is not feasible, primarily due to cost, but also because ILS systems are likely to become redundant in the near future. GBAS Landing Systems (GLS) already allow precision approaches to Cat I minima using GPS technology and are expected to allow approaches to Cat II/III minima by the end of the decade. Such systems are far easier to install and much more cost-effective than the old-style ILS. Sydney already has a GLS and I hope we’ll see more of these systems introduced over the next decade, especially at regional airports where the number of airline movements don’t justify the cost of an ILS.

    In the absence of better infrastructure, there are other steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of weather-related incidents. Going back to Mildura, the ATSB’s investigation report of that incident did not consider Australia’s ‘unique’ alternate aerodrome requirements. Those requirements do not meet ICAO standards, which require all IFR aircraft to specify an alternate aerodrome for the destination except in limited circumstances. I fail to understand why the ATSB did not even approach the issue, given the bureau found, in a 2004 research report, that such a requirement ‘demonstrated a marked increase in safety’. I can only assume it was put in the ‘too hard basket’.

    1. Dan Dair

      James Wilson,
      I am familiar with the high levels of precision available on high-end GPS systems but I had no idea that something like GBAS Landing Systems (GLS) was around the corner.
      I was thinking about ILS’s being fitted as a uni-directional system, to save money. If GLS is as comparatively cheap as you say, then such a system would indeed make more sense to roll-out across Australia.

      I’ve mentioned before that IMO the programme of installation of an ILS system should be based upon either number of incidents or number of hours/days that the airport was closed due to adverse weather, cross-referenced with how many aircraft movements or passenger numbers at each airport.?

      I understand that cost is a genuine issue, but equally safety MUST be paramount. The trade-off between the two has to put safety above cost in that equation and must justify why the costs outweigh the benefits;
      if for no other reason than for a baseline should the worst happen & people start to ask why the status-quo is the way it is.?

      I would put forward a suggestion that the Australian aviation industry should either pay for a comprehensive ILS / GLS network
      have real and genuine fuel alternative rules which actually meet, rather than paying lip-service to ICAO rules.

      I honestly believe that Australian aviation should go for one or the other (whichever works-out the cheapest.?) unless the regulator insists upon sitting in the airlines pocket & putting passenger safety and doing its job second to a comfy, cozy relationship with the airlines.?

      1. JW (aka James Wilson)


        Ultimately, it will be the consumer who pays, as any additional cost burden is likely to be passed on through higher airfares, etc.

        CASA is developing a new Part 121 to the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations to cover large aircraft operations (more than 9 passengers, or MTOW > 8,618 kg). The draft Manual of Standards for Part 121 includes destination alternate aerodrome requirements that meet the latest ICAO Annex 6 requirements. Public comments closed in November 2015, but I suspect that final implementation is still a long way off.

        According to Australia’s PBN (Performance Based Navigation) Implementation Plan, RNP (Required Navigation Performance) approaches will be implemented at all non-ILS equipped aerodromes during the period 2018-2022. Such approaches are essentially GPS approaches that provide lower landing minima than other types of non-precision approach, but they don’t provide the same landing minima as an ILS.

        To be honest, I don’t think we’ll see too many more new ILS approaches in Australia. They are costly and use old technology that requires a long straight-in approach; something that limits their usefulness at many airports where terrain and noise issues are factors. Have a look at the bunfight that has developed over the installation of an ILS at Gold Coast Airport, where the local community is up in arms about noise. GLS approaches allow far more flexible flight paths and I think we’ll see more of them at weather-prone airports in future.

        1. Dan Dair

          Thanks for the spread & depth of information.
          I’m pleased that much more seems to be going on than I’d realised.?
          Even if it’s all still some way down the line, at least it appears that positive steps are being taken.?

          I’m a little concerned about your comment “GLS approaches allow far more flexible flight paths”, which could be interpreted as being less given to a ‘stable approach’.?
          But presumably CASA will make the ‘stable approach’ a formal part of a precision-landing procedure for GLS landings, in the way it is with both ILS & VFR.?
          (Maybe I’m just over-analysing the flexibility aspect of your comment.?)

          1. JW (aka James Wilson)


            The ‘flexibility’ lies in the design of the approach, not the way it is flown by pilots. ILS approaches require a long, straight-in final segment due to the directional nature of the localiser beam. GPS-based approaches are not subject to the same limitations and can be designed with curved segments to a short final approach that avoids terrain and/or noise-sensitive areas.

          2. JW (aka James Wilson)

            The same stabilised approach criteria apply!

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