Two days after nearly losing a 144-seat jet that narrowly avoided a collision with a military target practice jet near Newcastle, Virgin Blue has finally won approval for an alliance with Etihad, which gives it faster flights than Qantas to many parts of Europe.
The Etihad deal, given five years approval this morning by the ACCC, has the potential to transform competition on those kangaroo route services that Qantas and its oneworld partner British Airways insist on routing through London’s Heathrow.
It is a big win for consumers regardless of the respective merits of the airlines that fly between Australia and Europe, as well as greatly improving access to the Middle East and northern African markets.
Anything that eliminates the disgrace that is Heathrow from the customer experience is a plus, although Virgin Blue also gains a fast service to London through connections to Etihad jets at Abu Dhabi .
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
In this case there is no revenue sharing between Virgin Blue’s V Australia flights to Abu Dhabi, and those of Etihad. They are simply allowed to co-operate in setting their fares and synchronising their schedules.
Interim approval for the arrangement had already been granted by the ACCC, and the first V Australia flights to Abu Dhabi begin later this month.
The Newcastle near miss is a nightmare that senior airline executives of Australian and foreign carriers using our air space have raised in background briefings in recent months.
Aircraft flown by Qantas, Emirates, Tiger Airways, Virgin Blue and Cathay Pacific have been put at risk because of improperly trained or incompetent AirServices Australia controllers losing the plot, as outlined in a recent ATSB report on an Emirates/Qantas near miss over Victoria last year, and pending high level inquiries into incidents near Darwin and Tamworth.
Those other incidents have already been flagged as being of concern by the ATSB.
However, it will not be clear where the system broke down in the Virgin Blue/Pel-Air close call on Tuesday until the ATSB completes its inquiry. Responsibility for the separation of flights to a hand-over point to military controllers at Newcastle’s Williamtown Airport is held by AirServices Australia, but it isn’t known if the jets were under military or civil air traffic separation at the time.
There has been agitation by private pilots and the airlines over issues with transiting or receiving clearance for Williamtown airspace for years, and all of those concerns have been swept aside as inconsequential by successive federal governments and their transport ministers.
On Tuesday, a jet that could have carried 150 passengers and crew and was travelling at maybe 270 kilometres an hour missed a Westwind corporate jet under military charter by seconds, given the closing speed of each aircraft.
The situation at Williamtown is not inconsequential.
The need for ministerial action to resolve the issues has existed for years.
How many people have to die before the reality of conflicts between military and civil operations at Williamtown lead to real action?