In a moment of collective insanity at Regional Express Airlines last Friday, the carrier’s chief pilot approved a request by staff to fly a passenger in the cockpit jump seat of a SAAB 340 turbo-prop on a service from Sydney to Lismore.
Loaded with several tonnes of fuel, the 13 tonne aircraft would have been no more than seconds of flying time from the CBD, the Harbour Bridge or other vulnerable infrastructure landmarks shortly after take off. Not enough mass, or speed, or fuel to collapse skyscrapers, but more than enough to make a spectacular terrorist statement if anyone had it in mind.
When challenged over this obvious breach of the intent of anti-terrorism legislation — and the spending of millions of dollars of public money on the strengthening of lockable cockpit doors — REX maintained its actions were right and proper.
The whistle was blown by an anonymous Crikey subscriber, who wrote yesterday:
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Passengers on REX flight ZL328 Sydney to Lismore were left sitting in a bus on the apron for 20 minutes on Friday morning while their aircraft was replaced due to an overheating engine. After they boarded a smaller replacement aircraft it was discovered that there were more passengers than seats. After taking on additional fuel to compensate, one passenger spent the 95-minute flight in the cockpit jump seat.
The response from REX was:
We have investigated the events your subscriber outlines and confirm the following details and that Rex has not breached any regulatory requirements or our own procedures.
To confirm, a 34 seat Saab 340 aircraft was scheduled to operate Rex Flight ZL328 on 26 October. Just before departure, the aircraft was found unserviceable and was swapped with another Saab 340 but with a 33 seat configuration. At this stage, passengers were already on the bus on the tarmac waiting to board. Approval was extended to the Captain by our Chief Pilot to place one passenger in the cockpit jump seat to avoid a passenger being off-loaded from the flight. This is permissible under current regulations and may be undertaken in accordance with Rex’s operational procedures.
Crikey has asked the Minister for Transport and his department how it could be that REX appears so unaware of its obligations under anti-terrorism rules, rules which should prevent access to a cockpit by an unscreened passenger, or alternatively, how it could be that the rules can be so easily set aside by a carrier, for commercial expediency. One fare is all it takes to go from loss to profit on a small plane.
There is an acute shortage of seats on domestic services in general and Qantas, Virgin Blue and Jetstar might presumably now rush to put paying passengers into their cockpits right behind the captain and first officer.
CASA has not responded to enquiries about this incident. The Australian Federal Police are awaiting any referral the Department of Transport might make. The Minister, Mark Vaile, is out of reach on the campaign trail in far northern Queensland and could not comment on the ease with which REX has evaded the key provisions of the multi-million dollar Enhanced Regional Aviation Security Package of 2003.