The public hasn’t been told the full story about the risks flights will be exposed to at Newcastle’s Williamtown airport over four weeks of the Christmas holidays, when the Air Force controllers who usually handle civil movements will be on leave.

The situation was kicked into play yesterday by Dick Smith, who denounced the air safety regulator CASA for not using a year’s notice from the ADF of the shutdown to organise replacement air traffic controllers.

Smith’s complaints then caused CASA to crank out soothing words about how safe Newcastle would be, which were lightly edited into a report in this morning’s Australian.

But Australia, unlike almost every other country on the planet, allows regional turbo-props with between 10-30 seats to legally fly without being fitted with an automated collision avoidance system known as TCAS.

This leaves them invisible to larger airliners and each other in the absence of controlled separation.

For four weeks, at the height of the thunderstorm season for which the Hunter Valley and its high ranges are infamous, numerous regional flights in small turbo-props will not be tracked with precision by radar on their approaches or departures to the RAAF airfield, which is now being used by more than a million civilian air travellers a year.

They will be coordinated by one man with a radio, who will never know precisely where any of them really are, including the wild cards, the aircraft without TCAS, or those that inadvertently remain silent if they fail to select the correct frequency as they close in on Williamtown.

The levels of risk may be small, but they add up to troubling and completely avoidable invitations to disaster.

The CASA position is that the holiday arrangements are almost identical to those used on weekends when there are no RAAF controllers.

But this is like 14 inadequately controlled weekends in a continuous string at the busiest and stormiest time of the year.

This situation is different from the shambles caused by the undermanning crisis in AirServices Australia on the main east coast routes in recent weeks or the probability that this will disrupt holiday flights on the major inter city routes.

Smith’s last ditch suggestion for a solution is for Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon to find Air Force controllers at short notice in the national interest.

“This isn’t the ADF’s fault,” he said. “But if there was a defence or natural disaster crisis in the country, we know that everyone would be on deck whatever the day or hour.

“Perhaps this can be treated the same way, because CASA has failed at the last minute and there is a public interest that the ADF can fix.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey