Having failed in its long, costly and flawed prosecution of two Qantas pilots for recklessly endangering public safety is the Civil Aviation Safety Authority going to run with the ball over a similar incident involving two Jetstar pilots earlier this year?

On 23 October 2001, multiple witnesses reported a Qantas 737 takeoff from Launceston Airport without runway lights.

CASA launched a criminal prosecution against both pilots which ended in the Supreme Court in Tasmania yesterday when Justice Pierre Slicer granted a permanent stay because, among other things, the investigation had failed to preserve vital evidence.

On 12 March this year a Jetstar A320 was recorded by a security camera as taking off from the same airport without lights, but on this occasion, the independent safety investigator, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau launched its own as yet incomplete inquiry.

That evidence has been preserved.

Both incidents raise the same serious concerns for passenger safety, but have ended in the hands of two different bodies.

The ATSB is not an enforcer of safety laws. If it finds evidence of criminal activity, that is, the pilots disregarded the prohibition on taking off from an unlit runway, it can drop its inquiry and leave it to CASA to pursue.

If it finds however, that something else, such as a systems failure, caused the black takeoff, it will pursue a technical analysis and issue safety recommendations if necessary to the world’s aviation authorities and airlines using A320s.

In the 2001 incident, CASA took action because it saw it as a deliberate breach of the law rather than a safety issue warranting the technical skills of the ATSB which, tellingly, never pursued it.

Two issues are now unresolved. One is the capacity of the authorities to prosecute alleged acts of reckless indifference to safety by pilots, and the other the risk that systemic issues are causing runway lights which are supposed to be remotely activated by pilots to fail.

In recent months the ATSB incident database has recorded a number of claims that runway lighting systems have switched themselves off before departing airliners have started or completed their takeoffs.

Put beside well-documented failures by AirServices Australia to provide full air traffic control on important air corridors at night, the combination of dark skies and dark runways ought to be causing concern in the government over the state of air transport infrastructure and its safety implications.

Peter Fray

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