Dick Smith has made a politically sensitive attack on the Australian Transport Safety Bureau for avoiding its responsibilities in its inquiry into a close encounter between a Virgin Blue 737 and a Jetstar A320 over a fog-bound Launceston Airport two years ago.

There are full-page ads in the Tasmanian dailies this morning, and the release of a letter Smith wrote to the PM, the latter containing implications of misconduct or incompetence by the ATSB that cannot be easily brushed aside, as well as a claim that the government has reneged on bi-partisan support to air navigation reforms while in opposition.

20-07-2010 11-39-33 AM

Smith has the facts on his side. It is only by good luck that 222 people didn’t die in a mid-air collision between the two jets, and that the government isn’t going to the polls following a damning Royal Commission into the incompetent management of safe air navigation in Australia, and the wilful neglect of the issues by a succession of federal governments.

Both jets had blundered into a situation where rising terrain compelled them to remain at least 3100 feet above the ground, and the first the Jetstar pilots knew of the risk of the collision was the landing lights of the Virgin Blue 737 shining through the top of the fog as it turned towards them, in a position where they had to continue to climb up to and through its altitude or risk hitting a mountain.

Yet the ATSB didn’t make a single safety recommendation following its inquiries into the incident, even though both jets were being displayed as in a dangerous situation on Australia’s air traffic control radar system.

Instead it took secret submissions from the two airlines, AirServices Australia and the air safety regulator, CASA, before coming out with an obviously inadequate report that seems more designed to keep the public in the dark than address a glaring deficiency insofar as available radar isn’t being used to keep Australian airliners apart.

What was in those submissions? ATSB suppression of submissions from airlines and other authorities after it has completed its inquiries and before it issues a report make the transparent enforcement of safety standards in Australian aviation an impossibility.

In the Tasmanian press this morning the Minister for Transport, Anthony Albanese, is quoted as saying he has relied on experts for advice about how safe the air navigation system is, a rather sanguine view of a system that was switched on but not being applied over Launceston.

Who are these faceless experts controlling the failure of Labor to safely administer aviation in the country, and can they be dismissed? (The minister has been asked a list of questions.)

Only in Australia is it possible for passenger jets to be expected to self separate in uncontrolled airspace in which there is no standard for safe separation.

In his letter to the PM, Smith quotes a highly respected US authority on flight safety standards, John King, on his review of the ATSB report:


One possible reason for the ATSB resistance to dealing with the obvious air traffic control issues is the entrenched hatred of Dick Smith that lingers in air safety regulation in Australia.

Vendettas ought not influence good policy, and the continued exposure of Australian travellers to an absurdly dangerous situation in air navigation will, inevitably, end in slaughter in our skies.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey