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How AirServices Australia lost two Garuda A330s over WA

Crikey, 28 February 2014

When a national air safety investigator, like the ATSB, tells a national air navigation provider like AirServices Australia, that its staff are ignorant in respect of some of their obligations, and that it hasn’t adequately dealt with important safety issues, we have a problem that makes bad financials from Qantas and Virgin seem less urgent. This is what the ATSB, to use plain English, is telling AirServices today in relation to two Garuda A330s that flew through a large part of supposedly controlled Australian airspace over the Kimberley and adjacent areas in March 2012 without air traffic control knowing they were in Australian skies.

The detailed final report is very technical, and thorough, and deeply troubling.

However the ATSB’s summary of this scandalous third world shabby, unpardonable state of affairs is less anodyne than usual for those who only read that far.

In brief, a temporary restricted area or TRA had to be declared at short notice when AirServices couldn’t adequately fill a night shift, and nobody, but nobody, told anybody, in the cockpits of the two wide body airliners , or even in relevant parts of the air traffic navigation service, about the situation.

The Garuda flights, an A330-200 flying to Sydney from Denpasar and an A330-300 flying from Denpasar to Melbourne were only noticed when they had crossed the TRA over the northwestern area of WA and reached the boundaries of active air traffic control zones, to the surprise of controllers separating airlines approaching each city for the morning peak international arrivals periods.

At no stage did the jets come too close to each other. But in ATC terms, separation assurance was not provided.

Among other things, the ATSB says that what it tactfully calls ‘a range of actions by operational personnel did not conform to expectations’.

It says Airservices’ risk controls were ‘not robust enough to effectively manage this situation’.

The safety investigator says ‘The ATSB is not satisfied that AirServices Australia has adequately addressed the identified safety issues regarding processes for managing a Temporary Restricted Area to ensure that all aircraft were known to air traffic services and contingency plan testing and review effectiveness.’

AirServices Australia has been under new management for a while. It needs time to fix the state of affairs that had previously made it a serial offender in safety transgressions and failures to properly maintain the skills of its controllers.

But there is an urgency in incidents like this. They can end in a terrible accident.

The consistency with which inferior air traffic control services are provided by the national air navigation services provider indicates an on-going deficiency which is inconsistent with Australia’s claims to deliver first world air safety standards to its airliners and those who use the air space for which it is responsible.