Why did the Australian Transport Safety Bureau and the federal government appear to hush-up a serious near-miss between airliners in Australian airspace, as suggested in the latest report by the “independent” safety investigator into a close encounter between a Qantas Cityflyer 767 (250 seats) and a Tiger Airways A320 (180 seats) above Tamworth on July 1 last year?

The incident was every bit as serious as two other instances of gross incompetence by AirServices Australia involving a near miss between an Emirates 777 and a Qantas 737-800 on September 3, 2009, and another involving a Cathay Pacific A330 and a Virgin Blue 737-800 near Darwin on December 22, 2009.

Those reports were given high visibility by the ATSB. This latest report has been interred in a periodical compendium of “short investigations” of lowest level importance by the ATSB, yet when the full report is expanded within that electronic publication it comes up as a major inquiry into an incident every bit as serious as the others.

To read this latest report in full, first go here then digest the inadequate summary and then click on the link to the real report on the right.

Only by going to the source material is it revealed that the actions taken by AirServices Australia to prevent a really serious infringement of separation were so inept over a period of three minutes that the TCAS (automated traffic control and collision avoidance system) on the Tiger jet still went off  and warned its pilots that they had another jet directly ahead and 700 feet above them, which is totally unacceptable in air space management.

Why was this report buried? The obvious inference is that the Department of Infrastructure and Transport is unwilling to keep the public informed about the serious risks that inadequate training and severe fatigue in AirServices Australia pose to safe flight in this country.

The situation is a festering disgrace. In the other two incidents linked above, the ATSB includes documentation from the field and training notes proving the deliberate employment of improperly trained officers for position in which they were unable to perform their duties, and risked hundreds of lives.

In this “buried” report, the full version, not the stuff-you summary included in the “short investigation” compendium it says: “The controller in question had not completed separation training as a component of either the initial or ATC Group training some years previously.”

Hang on. Separation is what controllers do. This person was unfit to perform the duties he bungled over Tamworth involving two jets with a total of 430 seats for a period of “some years”. What on earth is going on in our skies?

This is gross negligence by AirServives Australia, all under the imperturbable gaze of the responsible minister Anthony Albanese. The report also says:

“The controller reported that the workload and complexity of the ATC sector was high at the time of the incident, with restricted area activation, multiple lateral and longitudinal traffic scenarios, and constant level change requests due to turbulence.

“The controller also reported having been subject to the long-term effects of fatigue due to a number of issues, including working additional shifts and limited access to annual leave, and that they had implemented processes to manage that fatigue. The AirServices investigation report stated that the effects of the fatigue reported by the controller could not be accurately determined.”

Near the end of this long report, hidden from gaze in a short reports collection by the ATSB, there is a passage that says that AirServices Australia has:

“Advised that they are conducting a systemic review of a number of breakdown of separation (BoS) occurrences, with a specific focus on the BoSs that have occurred in the en-route environment. Outcomes from that review will be considered in terms of further safety improvement.

“In addition, AirServices has implemented a Compromised Separation Recovery training module for en-route ATC groups, with the intention that all controllers would undertake that training in the 2010/11 financial year.”

AirServices Australia should not be trusted as far as the minister could throw it to conduct such a review. It has failed to properly train its staff, it has undermanned the service to such an extent that severe fatigue is a huge risk to its operations, and it now says it is implementing training that air travellers and airlines might have reasonably expected every air traffic control would have undergone before they were let anywhere near the task of keeping airliners apart.

What is urgently needed is an independent expert review of AirServices Australia, not secretive reports and internal studies of its chronic and persistent failures to perform to the required international standards.

Peter Fray

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