9 December 2008
Mr Bruce Byron AM
Chief Executive Officer
Civil Aviation Safety Authority
GPO Box 2005
CANBERRA ACT 2601
Dear Mr Byron
Proposals for Newcastle's Airport for Christmas Holiday Period 2008-2009
We act for Mr Dick Smith and are instructed to write to you regarding CASA’s recently announced proposals for Newcastle’s Williamtown Airport for the busy Christmas holiday period coinciding with the month-long Department of Defence Period of Operational Standby (“POS”). It is understood that the proposals will be implemented in the next few days, possibly as early as Saturday, 13 December 2008.
The POS will occur because of the Department of Defence’s desire to allow all its air traffic controllers at Williamtown to take leave. As you are aware the RAAF currently operates the air traffic control and radar systems at Williamtown. Williamtown Airport services substantial passenger operations as well as military aviation activities. The Airport at Newcastle services approximately one million passengers per annum and commercial passenger jets as large as Boeing 737s and Airbus 320s regularly use the Airport, together with smaller aircraft used by operators such as Brindabella Airlines. In addition, many privately owned aircraft transit through or near Newcastle Airport enroute between Sydney and Brisbane.
In essence the proposals involve the cessation during the POS of all air traffic control and radar operations and their replacement with a Certified Air Ground Radio Service (“CAGRS”) provided by Newcastle Airports Limited (“NAL”), together with some additional controls such as the introduction of a Temporary Restricted Area (“TRA”), mandatory carriage and use of a transponder within the TRA and establishing procedures for pilots transiting the TRA. Significantly, neither ATC nor radar will be available. Apparently Defence is not prepared to allow NAL to access its radar facilities at Williamtown to support the CAGRS being operated for the first time during POS at the airport by other than Defence personnel.
Mr Smith holds grave concerns relating to public safety issues created by CASA’s proposals. In particular he considers that there is a serious risk to public safety at such a busy airport by the suspension of all ATC and radar services and their replacement with inadequate and unacceptably inferior services based on CAGRS operated by a recently appointed agent of NAL who will not have access to Defence radar.
Mr Smith’s specific concerns may be summarised as follows:
(a) CASA’s failure to conduct an adequate safety analysis of the proposals. In particular, CASA’s October 2008 Williamtown Review is seriously deficient and contains material errors and omissions;
(b) CASA’s approval of arrangements during the POS which do not involve any ATC or radar services is directly contradictory to CASA’s conclusion in its February 2008 Williamtown Aeronautical Study requiring that Aerodrome and Approach Air Traffic Control Services be provided during reduced activity periods by Defence; and
(c) The risk to public safety is exacerbated by the belated timing for implementation of the proposals and, in particular, the totally inadequate time available between now and 13 December 2008 (when the proposals will be implemented) to educate pilots and properly put in place other arrangements necessitated by the proposals.
Each of these concerns will now be developed.
(a) Deficiencies in CASA’s Williamtown Review October 2008
There are several deficiencies with the October 2008 Review which are of such a serious nature, that it must be doubted whether CASA has discharged the statutory obligation imposed on it by Section 9A of the Civil Aviation Act 1988 to regard the safety of air navigation as the most important consideration in exercising its powers and performing its functions.
The first deficiency relates to CASA’s risk modelling (the same risk modelling was applied by CASA in its February 2008 Aeronautical Study). As Mr Smith has pointed out in earlier correspondence to CASA (see in particular his letters dated 24 April 2008 and 25 June 2008), CASA’s methodology is based on hypothetical models which lack any evidence of external validation or verification. Mr Smith’s criticisms of CASA’s risk modelling are shared by other reputable experts. For example, Mr Tony Broderick, who retired in June 1996 after 11 years as the senior career aviation safety official with the USA Federal Aviation Administration, has described the modelling in a personal communication to Mr Smith dated 7 December 2008 as follows:
“...the risk modelling done, while interesting from an academic point of view, is very qualitative and not something that has been validated using real world data. The study notes (page 8) that the R2A study is based on a proposed methodology developed apparently in New Zealand. The risk model itself is described elsewhere in detail as the R2A report references, but apparently has not been adopted by others, and is certainly not something that should drive decisions. The risk model should be used, in my view, to compare various alternatives, but it is not at a level of maturity that it can determine whether or not a given practice is ‘safe’.” (emphasis added).
The second matter relates to CASA’s benefit-cost analysis regarding the use of ATC. The cost of operating a class D tower with ATC services is quoted in the February 2008 Aeronautical Study as $436,000 with a benefit estimated at $203,000 (page 23). Furthermore, CASA concluded that introduction of a class D tower service at an aerodrome reduces the risk profile by a factor of 3 (page 14). There is no reason to believe that those estimates have changed materially since then. It seems remarkable that CASA is not prepared to continue to insist upon ATC services at Williamtown during the POS when the cost equates to less than 45 cents per passenger spread over a year. Mr Broderick shares this concern and observes:
“...the study seems to me to show a very close match between the benefit and cost of the tower; I would not read the small difference as being dispositive in demonstrating that the costs outweigh the benefits”. (pers.comm).
Thirdly, the October 2008 Review contains some serious inaccuracies and omissions. For example, it is claimed at pages 3 and 9 that guidelines for transiting Williamtown airspace when Defence is not providing ATC services were published in AOPA’s magazine. That is wrong. In June 2008 AOPA published guidelines for transiting Williamtown airspace when the ATC service was active, as is made clear on page 19 of that publication. To Mr Smith’s knowledge, AOPA has never published any guidelines as described by CASA which would operate when no ATC is available, as is now proposed by CASA. Further, one of the additional controls recommended in the October 2008 Review is the mandatory carriage and use of a transponder by all aircraft within the TRA. The object of the recommendation is to facilitate the operation of Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems (“TCAS”) fitted in some commercial aircraft. The fundamental difficulty with the recommendation, however, is that many of the existing 10 to 30 passenger aircraft operating into and out of Williamtown are not fitted with TCAS. That is the case, for example, with Brindabella Airlines. The problem exists because, as CASA itself acknowledges, the recommendation in its February 2008 Study that passenger transport aircraft with ten seats or more be equipped with a TCAS has not been implemented (see page 19 of the October 2008 Review). Additionally, CASA has apparently paid no heed to practical considerations bearing upon the ability of such operators to install TCAS in the short time available before the proposals are implemented, including the cost and immediate availability of such equipment, not to mention the time involved in its installation.
Fourthly, the October 2008 Review fails to address some relevant considerations raised by the proposals. No regard has apparently been given to the removal of ATC and radar to prevent a Controlled Flight into Terrain and the emphasis is entirely on collision avoidance. This is a surprising omission in circumstances where the most common type of accident by professional pilots both internationally and in Australia is a Controlled Flight into Terrain i.e. where an air worthy aircraft is unintentionally flown into the ground as occurred tragically at Lockhart River in Cape York in May 2005 and at Benalla in July 2004. The availability of ATC and radar is crucial in avoiding such incidents. For example, the ATSB website records an incident on 1 October 2008 at Williamtown (occurrence number 200806449) when a Boeing 737 was cleared to descend to 9,000 feet but was subsequently observed by radar to descend below that level without a clearance. Although that incident itself presented no danger because it occurred at a height of 9,000 feet, the situation would have been different if a lower altitude was involved. The availability of ATC and radar is important in controlling such incidents and avoiding potentially catastrophic and tragic consequences.
A further surprising omission from the October 2008 Review is the absence of any consideration of the relevance of climate change and the probability of severe thunderstorms around Williamtown during the period of the POS. Bureau of Metrology records show that December and January historically have the highest number of thunderstorms in that area. We have witnessed extreme weather events in that area in recent weeks and there is no reason to believe that those occurrences will disappear or decline during the POS. The availability of ATC and radar is of vital importance to public safety during such extreme weather events. The availability of CAGRS without radar support is a totally inadequate substitute for such episodes.
(b) Inconsistencies with CASA’s February 2008 Williamtown Study
Having regard to the heavy use of Williamtown by a wide range of commercial and private aircraft during the busy holiday period coinciding with POS (effectively mid-December to mid-January) and the substantial number of passengers who can be expected to use the airport during that period it is essential that full ATC and radar services be available. So much was recognised by CASA itself in its February 2008 Williamtown Aeronautical Study, as is reflected in the following passage from page 30 of that document:
“On the 4 December 2007, the DAS [Director of Safety] considered the particular circumstances surrounding Williamtown, as well as the significance of Williamtown as a substantial regional airport with an expanding number of scheduled passenger-carrying operations and involving progressively larger aircraft. The DAS considered that in this case, the public expectation would be of a higher level of risk mitigation.
The DAS’ determination was “that Aerodrome and Approach Air Traffic Control Services be provided at Williamtown at weekends and during the DRAP (Defence Reduced Activity Period)”.
The importance of ATC and radar services in maximising public safety was not only then fully recognised and supported by CASA but it is consistent with international best practice. For example, the Flight Safety Foundation, based in Washington DC and widely regarded as the world’s most reputable safety promotion organisation, gives the majority of points for safety mitigation for Controlled Flight Into Terrain as the usage of ATC and radar (see CFIT Checklist (Rev. 23/1/000r).
Mr Smith strongly believes that the case for having ATC and radar at Williamtown during the forthcoming POS is just as strong as was the case last year when CASA objected to Defence’s proposal at that time to suspend the services, as well as when CASA published its February 2008 Study. The October 2008 Review provides no adequate basis for viewing the situation any differently now.
It is also significant that of the eleven specific recommendations made by CASA in its February 2008 Study, only six have been implemented to date. Those recommendations were made by CASA on the express basis that their implementation was necessary to provide a risk level that is “as low as is reasonably practical” if Williamtown was to operate without an ATC. It seems remarkable that CASA is now prepared to proceed with implementation of its latest proposals even though five of those recommendations remain unimplemented, including that relating to TCAS as noted above. Other unimplemented recommendations include rationalising the number of frequencies, the recommendation for an ATS and the redesign of airspace.
(c) Insufficient lead time for safe implementation of the proposals
A separate matter of particular concern relates to the patently inadequate lead time before implementation of the proposals. CASA has had since February 2008 to progress this matter. Its October 2008 Review was made available on its website quite recently. It is understood that the proposals are scheduled to commence on 13 December 2008. That lead time is totally inadequate in circumstances where:
· As noted above to date no procedures have been published for pilots to transit the TRA during the POS;
· To date no educational material has been distributed to pilots concerning the proposals, including the arrangements for the TRA and the proposed requirement that aircraft operating in the TRA be on the CTAF (R) frequency. Mr Smith spoke with the Chief Executive Officer of AOPA today and he indicated that AOPA had not yet received any final relevant NOTAM concerning Newcastle’s Airport. It is remarkable that such delays have occurred given the time CASA has been seized of the matter and the immanent start date;
· There is considerable doubt whether NAL’s agent operating the CAGRS is ready to take responsibility for that service from next Monday. That apparent state of un-readiness is evident from the fact that as recently as 5 December 2008 an advertisement appeared in The Australian newspaper seeking air traffic controllers or flight service officers to operate CAGRS at Williamtown; and
· Mr Byron has previously indicated that a lead time of at least three months is required for the safe implementation of significant changes to airspace arrangements to enable educational material to be distributed and fully comprehended by pilots and aircraft operators generally.
For all these reasons Mr Smith believes that CASA has failed to comply with its statutory obligation under Section 9A of the Civil Aviation Act to regard the safety of air navigation as paramount. Furthermore Mr Smith entertains the gravest of concerns that public safety will be unacceptably put at risk by the proposals for Newcastle Airport.
Having regard to the matters raised above Mr Smith is also concerned that CASA is in breach of section 11A of the Civil Aviation Act, under which CASA is obliged to exercise its powers and perform its functions in a manner which is consistent with the Australian Airspace Policy Statement. According to CASA’s current website CASA continues to operate on the basis of the Statement of Expectations dated 12 March 2007 issued by the previous Minister for Transport and Regional Services, together with CASA’s Statement of Intent dated 14 May 2007. The former Statement requires CASA in performing its duties to take into account inter alia :
- The central importance of consistency and timeliness in CASA decision-making in delivering transparent and respected safety regulatory processes; and
- CASA’s obligation to develop, assess and promote airspace reform proposals according to inter alia international best practice risk and cost benefit analysis.
The latter statement records your personal assurance to the Minister that CASA’s highest priority is the fare paying passenger and that CASA will operate with safety as its primary objective. Mr Smith has difficulty in reconciling these requirements and assurances with CASA’s proposals for Newcastle’s Airport.
In those circumstances Mr Smith considers that compliance with CASA’s statutory obligations require:
(a) Implementation of an aerodrome and approach air traffic control service, consistently with the Director of Safety’s determination as referred to on page 30 of the February 2008 Williamtown Aeronautical Study during the POS; or
(b) All passenger transport operations at Williamtown be suspended unless and until paragraph (a) immediately above is implemented.
We seek your written undertaking by no later than 5pm Thursday 11 December 2008 in terms of paragraphs (a) or (b) above. In the event that you fail to provide the requested undertakings within that time frame, or otherwise fail to act in such a manner as to address the safety concerns raised in this letter, we have instructions from Mr Smith to commence immediate proceedings in the Federal Court of Australia seeking appropriate relief, including urgent interlocutory relief, and without further notice to you. The short time frame is regretted but is unavoidable given the imminent implementation of CASA’s proposals.
Given the importance of this matter and the short time available before the proposals are implemented, we are instructed to copy our letter to the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development, Local Government.
cc. The Honourable Anthony Albanese, MP
Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development, Local Government.