Election squabbling buries air safety recommendations

Liberal Senator David Fawcett says Transport Minister Anthony Albanese has failed to respond to the damning findings of the Senate Inquiry into the ATSB’s and CASA’s responses to the Norfolk Island ditching on November18 2009.

ATSB today confirmed that there would now be no action on the critical recommendations until after the election. 

The Senate Committee’s report with 26 safety-related recommendations was released on 23 May, 2013. It highlighted serious concerns with the processes and conduct of both government agencies, and its recommendations were aimed at rectifying what it described as “the serious deficiencies that the committee had identified.”

Senator David Fawcett 02b

Senator Fawcett

The committee’s first recommendation was that the ATSB retrieve the accident aircraft’s flight data and cockpit voice recorders “without delays.”

The report said: “The committee understands that retrieval of the recorders would be particularly useful in this instance [and] that the ATSB has certain responsibilities, set out in ICAO Annex 13, when it comes to retrieval of aircraft involved in accidents. It is an assumption throughout Annex 13 that, where a FDR [flight data recorder] exists, the accident investigation body will prioritise its retrieval.”

Air safety specialists believe that the aircraft’s flight data and cockpit voice recorders could be recovered with relative ease, saying they do not understand why this recommendation is being ignored, especially as further delay might damage the equipment.

Also recommended were a reopening of the original investigation with a focus on organisational and systemic issues, a drastic rearrangement of the structures within which ATSB and CASA operate, the establishment of an ICAO Annex 13 independent panel to oversee ATSB investigations and reporting, and a referral to the Australian Federal Police to investigate whether CASA breached the Transport Safety Investigation act by withholding critical documents during the investigation.

During estimates hearings in May this year, Senator Fawcett specifically highlighted the risk of Government inaction before the caretaker period began, causing an unacceptable delay to implementing the recommended aviation safety reforms.

When asked during Estimates on May 29 if the department’s brief to the Minister would occur in sufficient time so that Mr Albanese could respond before the caretaker mode, Department Secretary Mike Mrdak replied:

We already have officers in the department – and clearly me and senior officers – who have carefully read the report now. I have had discussions with my senior officers. We envisage being in a position to provide some initial advice to the minister, I expect, certainly within the next week to 10 days in relation to it. I envisage having conversations with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority CEO and the head of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau in the coming days to ascertain their views, to enable me to provide a comprehensive view to the minister, I would hope by the end of next week.” [two months ago.]

Senator Fawcett points out that the report was tabled on May 23, allowing the Minister a three month window to respond and that given its damning findings Minister Albanese should have made this his top priority, particularly given his promise that ‘nothing is as important as aviation safety.’

“Even the announcement today of an external review of the ATSB by the Canadian Transportation Safety Board (TSB) was not made by the Minister but by the agency in question, said Senator Fawcett, referring to ATSB announcement on August 2 that the transportation is safety board of Canada (TSB) will conduct an independent external review of the ATB’s investigation processes and publish the results. The review was announced jointly by TSB Chair Wendy Tadross and ATSB chief commissioner, Martin Dolan.

Sen Fawcett remains unimpressed: “This raises serious concerns about the efficacy of any resulting report unless the Minister ensures that the terms of reference (ToR) and Australian management of the audit are transparent and independent.”

We asked the ATSB whether a decision been made on recovery of the flight data and cockpit voice recorders of the Pel-Air aircraft, whether recovering the recorders would be an ATSB or departmental decision, and whether the investigation will be reopened as recommended in recommendation 9. We also asked if the Canadian review was a part-response to the Senate recommendations.

The ATSB would not comment on the recorders or reopening the investigation, but a spokesman said: “We’ve been in discussion with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada for some time, and it’s about benchmarking and comparison of our systems of investigation. This is an initiative of the ATSB’s chief commissioner and the TSB’s Chair, and the TSB has agreed that their benchmarking review will have regard to the Senate committee’s findings, so we’ll take those into account.

“In regards to your specific questions, it is the responsibility of the Government to respond to the recommendations of Senate committees. The ATSB has provided input to the preparation of a government response. The caretaker conventions that are now in place mean that a government response will not be finalised until after the federal election.

Senator Fawcett again called on Minister Albanese to ensure that this review of the ATSB has the confidence of the aviation industry and the public by adopting Recommendation 8 of the Senate report:

8.         The committee recommends that an expert aviation safety panel be established to ensure quality control of ATSB investigation and reporting processes along the lines set out by the committee.

“While the engagement of the Canadian TSB is welcome, the gravity of the issues raised in the Senate report means that the Minister should be overseeing the review with the support of an expert panel rather than the ATSB,” Senator Fawcett said.

“It is critical that this review of the ATSB is allowed to examine all sensitive areas of the ATSB investigation orocesses as identified in the Senate report including the Canley Vale accident.”

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About Paul Phelan

Paul Phelan flew for over 50 years in private, charter, corporate and regional aviation, worked in senior management roles with a major regional airline, and retains his license. In parallel he has been writing for Australian and international aviation journals for well over 20 years on all aspects of aviation including aircraft evaluation, flying, industry affairs, infrastructure, manufacture, regulatory affairs, safety, technologies and training. He has won three separate National Aviation Press Club awards for "best technical aviation story of the year."

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