CASA appeared yet again as the government apologist for the state of air safety in Australia yesterday.

This time they were apologising for the wreck that is Airservices Australia, the troubled, yet highly profitable, government business responsible for Air Traffic Control in Australia — or more to the point the lack of it. But you would be amazed to discover after yesterday’s performance that CASA are responsible for regulatory oversight of Airservices!

Amazed because they seem to simply accept that Airservices and the airlines will work out the best way to overcome the disaster looking for a place to happen in our skies at the moment. CASA stated that pilots are trained to fly in the TIBA (closed — no ATC service) airspace. Anyone listening in around our capital cities over the last few months could be confused by that statement — almost as confused as the myriad Australian and International pilots themselves who had no idea the airspace had been closed or the procedures to adopt.

Air Traffic Controllers are incredibly frustrated at the lack of preparation these airline crews with their hundred of passengers aboard have to enter this airspace — but in the same way are understanding — because this is the kind of thing many pilots have never seen unless they have flown through the backblocks of Africa where impoverished nations have no infrastructure to support safe Air Traffic Control.

A post on one of the ATC bulletin boards is an eye opener:

I had the distinct uncomfortable displeasure of working adjoining TIBA airspace last night. I work Approach & Departures at (major international airport), so the entry in to the TIBA happens pretty quickly for the departures, either 18,000 FT or at 30 miles from the Airport.

Theoretically the aircraft would make a broadcast on 128.95 (TIBA Frequency) prior to Departure. A handheld radio being monitored (outside of the centre) confirmed none of the International Departures did this. It became quickly apparent that none of the International Crews (Malaysian, Singapore Airlines & Thai Airways) understood the procedures. All of them requested clearance for climb when approaching 18000 FT but they were no longer in controlled airspace. One came back after a few minutes saying he couldn’t raise Centre on 128.95! Total lack of understanding.

All of these extra transmissions managed to congest an already busy combined frequency… the inbound aircraft at one stage could not get on frequency due to constant questions from the outbound TIBA Heavies, and ended up orbiting in TIBA airspace and screwing their place in the sequence — ridiculous).

There is a serious deficiency in what advice/briefing these crews are receiving. Personally I don’t think the NOTAMS spell out exactly what they are getting themselves and the 300 trusting souls down the back of each of these flights in to. The Flying Doctor and Freight aircraft seemed more at home with it, calling inbound with plenty of notice for an Airways Clearance.

What a sad state of affairs they are so comfortable with it. This is in no way a reflection or comment on my fellow controllers — it is an indictment on our management for letting things get this bad, and on CASA for not ensuring that International Crews operating in to this airspace are adequately operationally prepared.

Another controller speaks of their experience around another Capital City Airport:

The TIBA from 8-10pm was a period of confusion. We were informed all the (airline) operators had been notified well in advance and contingency routes clear of the airspace arranged. You won’t be surprised that at least half a dozen departing just prior to or just after the commencement answered “NO” when asked if they were aware they’d be entering TIBA.

Fortunately internationals weren’t involved … An inbound jet called 10 NM from the boundary at 23,000Feet requesting clearance — sufficient time in the best of circumstances although their clearance had to be repeated as they couldn’t hear for the chatter on the TIBA frequency (there were a scary number of aircraft tracks down there)…

CASA also mentioned that Airservices were short by 18 Air Traffic Controllers. This would be a figure the PR spin doctors shared amongst themselves.

These “fantasy figures” must take on a life of their own, because they do not even live on the same planet as reality. Those at the coalface know the real figure is well over 100, and rapidly deteriorating with little prospect of a recovery within the next two years.

Airservices now have no way out — their only saving grace is that the Air Traffic Controllers are in a period of negotiation for their new contract. So any of these airspace closures can be conveniently, but incorrectly, blamed on an “industrial campaign”. So they have a weapon in the phoney media war.

The truth is far more frightening — and one the media and the public are yet to comprehend.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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