There is something the swelling hordes of low cost airlines flyers using Newcastle Airport this weekend need to know.

The airspace your jet will tear through coming and going to the airport, which is a leased section of the Williamtown RAAF facility, will be shared by small aircraft that may not even know your Airbus A320 or Boeing 737 is there.

This is because defence, which provides important air traffic control services Monday to Friday, goes home for the weekend.

The situation has existed for a very long time. But suddenly Newcastle is booming. Flights by Virgin Blue, Jetstar and Tiger have taken it to one million passengers a year. Late in 2003 the airport took less than 300,000 passengers a year. It has more than trebled by head count in four years and will increase by a further 50 per cent in the next four months.

The extra flights already scheduled by the latter two carriers will make it a 1.5 million passengers-a-year airport by June. Newcastle has become a full throttle battle for market share between the Qantas and Singapore proxies, Jetstar and Tiger respectively. And their common foe AirAsiaX wants to turn up with 396 passenger widebody Airbus A330s.

Newcastle Airport insists everyone is safe because air traffic on the weekend will follow approved CTAF procedures. Which stands for Common Traffic Advisory Frequency.

CTAF is of course safe if every plane in the area is using it, meaning switched on to the right frequency for the area, with all pilots announcing their intentions, joining orderly queues and giving due deference to 180 seat airliners.

But no-one in a CTAF environment knows if their own radio is working, or on the right frequency, or which of the aircraft they might spot are also actually listening or talking.

So what is a perfectly reasonable system when a few light aircraft flown by weekend recreational fliers are enjoying the great outdoors becomes increasingly risky whenever jets come into the mix.

Despite claims that the weekends using Newcastle Airport are just as safe as weekdays, when traffic is subject to significantly better surveillance and intervention, the truth is that behind the scenes the airport, defence and AirServices Australia are scrambling to provide Saturday and Sunday coverage that will bring the area up to speed for air space infrastructure.

It can’t come soon enough.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey