The decision not to inquire into the Qantas nitrogen gas screw-up closely followed the ATSB deciding not to investigate a REX turbo-prop that flew most of the way from Wagga Wagga to Sydney on one engine as reported here.

REX offered very good reasons for this, but did not explain why it didn’t divert to available airports west of the southern highlands. And it is difficult to imagine that the ATSB couldn’t have drawn important safety insights from the unprecedented set of circumstances that overtook that flight.

The independent safety regulator seemed to go very timid and un-independent in the later part of this year compared to earlier investigations.

Among its current iniquities is the botched missed approach in fog to Melbourne Airport on 21 July by a Jetstar A320 with 138 passengers on board that sank close to the ground because the pilots selected the wrong throttle setting and failed to identify or correct their error.

The preliminary report on this incident shows that the ATSB is reviewing pilot training and competency issues in its continuing inquiry, matters that go to the heart of Jetstar’s competency in meeting its air operator certificate conditions.

Yet the safety regulator CASA thought it could be left to an internal inquiry, Jetstar struggled to comprehend the enormity of the situation, and the ATSB didn’t fire up an investigation until media reports appeared in Aviation Business and Crikey, nearly two months later.

In other preliminary and final reports the ATSB raised doubts as to whether smaller turbo-prop operators even know how to keep enough fuel in their tanks, while noting that a Qantas flight was three quarters of the way to Sydney from Perth before its pilots discovered they hadn’t activated a critical fuel tank.

It is still dealing with three serious incidents with Virgin Blue jets, one which ran off the runway into grass while beginning a take off from Sydney, another that dropped into Rockhampton with a fuel “problem” while flying between Brisbane and Hamilton Island, and one that landed at Townsville Airport only to have a Cessna doing pilot training play leap frog with it when it landed right behind it and then hopped over its tail.

The ATSB also revealed grave failings of oversight and competency on the part of CASA in relation to the shabby Transair disaster near the Lockhart River strip in May 2005, in which CASA insisted it was blameless.

Not only did CASA chief executive officer Bruce Byron insist in Senate hearings that his regulator was really and truly regulating safety, but in November issued a pamphlet redefining its role as being to “attempt to influence the safety outcomes that somebody else delivers.”

Byron doesn’t have any authority to redefine or bypass the obligations of the laws that charge CASA with the enforcement of air safety regulation in Australia.

He is not supposed to “attempt” anything, but to enforce and deliver. CASA isn’t a business development unit, but the body charged with keeping the skies safe, yet it behaves more like the former than the latter.

Peter Fray

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