An alarming incident at Perth Airport involving a Garuda Indonesia 737, more than 100 predominantly Australian passengers and a construction crew working on a closed section of a runway last Friday has come to light.

The flight from Denpasar was about to land when the pilots queried why they could see vehicles and machinery at the end of the runway and began a go-around.

Perth tower is understood to have been doubly surprised.

Not only had Garuda and all other airlines using the airport been issued with a special notification of the work, which instructed them to use a displaced threshold, meaning land further down the runway than normal, but a copy of these instructions had been transmitted to the flight as it approached Perth.

Make that a triple surprise. The Garuda flight then lined for another landing on the runway and appeared at imminent risk of touching down right on top of the work site.

The tower ordered the Indonesians to abort the landing approach and go around again, but they kept coming, levelling off at the last moment to skim over the obstacles and then land safely on the remainder of the runway.

A major investigation has been launched by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. It is certain to ask whether or not the original notification to all pilots was clearly written (which Crikey understands that it was), whether Garuda’s operations division actually read and acted upon the notification, whether its pilots paid any attention to the electronic copy of the notification sent to their flight, and whether they understood the urgent advice from the tower to discontinue their landing approach and what factors might have made them ignore its directive.

This is a serious matter. While the ATSB only deals with the technical aspects of incidents with a view to furthering aviation safety, there is a political dimension which PM Rudd, as leader of the opposition, grasped in the aftermath of the 7 March, 2007 atrocity in which another Garuda 737 crash landed at Yogyakarta Airport which killed two AFP security officers, two Australian government employees, one journalist, 17 other passengers and left dozens injured or crippled among the 118 survivors.

That Garuda jet was still a smoking ruin when Rudd called for criminal sanctions against the pilots involved, who tried to land it on a short runway at twice the normal speed.

Subject to the findings of the investigation, what will the PM do about the antics of Garuda (which is responsible for the competency of its pilots) at an Australian airport?

Or does being in government make it all too hard to demand answers and actions?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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