Steve Creedy | November 16, 2007

FORMER Civil Aviation Safety Authority chairman Dick Smith has withdrawn his threat of legal action over Flightwatch after Airservices Australia agreed to review its decision to transfer the service to air traffic control radio frequencies.

Mr Smith said last night he had a letter from Airservices telling him it would participate in an external review of its plans for Flightwatch, which provides weather and other information to pilots, following a request from Transport Minister Mark Vaile. The transfer of remaining Flightwatch frequencies would be put on hold.

He said he was happy with the decision and believed that an external review would take up his call for a review of the cost-benefits of the decision.

"An independent review, I believe will say it should be retained," he said.

Mr Smith was last night resisting a call by Airservices to correct some claims he made in his legal threat about the closure of transmitters and the lack of a safety case. It was still his belief that the move was unsafe, a claim backed by the traffic controllers' union, Civil Air.

Civil Air earlier this week supported Mr Smith's call: "Airservices Australia's proposal to transfer the Flightwatch responsibilities to air traffic control added pressure to already extremely busy air traffic controllers. Flightwatch is categorised as the lowest priority of air traffic control duties."

Civil Air president Michael Haines said, "In times of bad weather, when the service is most relevant, controller workload will almost certainly preclude air traffic control provision of Flightwatch information."

While Airservices has agreed to the review, it denies it was going to close the 29 Flightwatch transmitters as part of the move to air traffic control and that it had not adequately investigated the safety of the move. Airservices chief executive Greg Russell said the decision to transfer Flightwatch would not affect the overall safety of the air traffic management system.

He said a review in 2006, undertaken in accordance with Airservices' safety management system, led to Flightwatch being changed to air traffic control frequencies using lower airspace Very High Frequency (VHF) channels.

"Other than the change of frequencies, the procedures for pilots requesting and receiving Flightwatch information remains unchanged," Mr Russell said.

"The Flightwatch service remains a free-of-charge service for general aviation and VFR pilots."

Mr Russell also denied Mr Smith's charge that there had been a lack of consultation. He said Airservices advised the industry through the Regional Airspace Users Advisory Committee of the proposed changes in August and kept consulting with industry through RAPAC and other regional forums.

The service received only about 50 calls per day and four inquiries about the change have been received since pilots were advised of the change and all but one had been satisfactorily resolved.

He said the VHF stations previously used by Flightwatch would used for air traffic control.

"This will allow Airservices the flexibility to accommodate growth in air traffic, provide better coverage for aircraft in low-level regional areas and meet the requirements of any further expansion of Class 'E' airspace," he said.

An Airservices spokesman said last night that safety was priority for the air traffic control provider.

The spokesman said there were worries the debate had caused confusion in the industry about whether Flightwatch was closing.

"It isn't it's just going to a different frequency," he said.



Following is copy of Legal Response to Mr Smith from Airservices Solicitors:

Copy of letter from Minter Ellison for Airservices
By Dick Smith
Nov 16, 2007, 09:06

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15 November 2007
Dear Mr O’Brien
Airservices Australia – Flightwatch
We act for Airservices Australia (Airservices).
Airservices has forwarded your letter dated 12 November 2007 for us to reply.
Your letter contains a series of assertions of fact. Our client disagrees with a number of those assertions. Your client is proceeding on incorrect assumptions and appears to misunderstand aspects of the changes to Flightwatch. Our client specifically rejects your client’s assertion that any of its currently implemented or proposed changes in relation to Flightwatch are, or could be taken to constitute, a danger to the safety of aviation. Our client takes very seriously its obligations in relation to the safety of air navigation. Our client also rejects the assertion that any of its processes to date in relation to Flightwatch have fallen short of its statutory or other obligations.
Your letter also refers to various correspondence and dealings with the Minister for Transport and Regional Services. For obvious reasons we do not comment on that correspondence.
After a request by the Minister for Transport and Regional Services, Airservices has decided that it will:
(a)    participate in an external review of the arrangements for the delivery of Flightwatch services against terms of reference to be endorsed by the Airservices’ Board. That appointment and the terms of reference for the review will be made after consultation with the Secretary of the Department of Transport and Regional Services;
(b)    as soon as possible, subject to safety considerations put on hold the final phase of the implementation of changes to Flightwatch. We are instructed, however, that the Flightwatch transition is now more than 85% complete.
(c)    until the review is concluded, continue to monitor those frequencies which have to date been consolidated. This will also involve the retention of all relevant infrastructure. Please note that one frequency has already been converted to use by ATC. Should a call be made to that frequency the caller will be answered by ATC; and
(d)    issue appropriate notifications in relation to the matters in (b) and (c).
We assume that your client will not be commencing the proceedings threatened in your correspondence. If this is not the case would you please telephone the writer immediately. We also ask that if any application is made to the Court for urgent relief that this letter is produced by you to the Court. Please note that we have instructions to accept service on behalf of Airservices should your client decide to commence proceedings.
We note the comments made by your client on the Sunrise program on Channel 7 on 13 November 2007. Those comments are clearly defamatory of the Chairman of Airservices and some of its Senior Executives and they reserve all rights with regards to your client’s defamatory statements.
Additionally, your client has made a number of factually incorrect statements in the media in relation to Flightwatch. They include, for example, statements in relation to:
(a)    reductions in safety in the Flightwatch system;
(b)    lack of proper safety assessments being performed by Airservices prior to the Flightwatch changes; and
(c)    the 29 Frequencies used for Flightwatch being closed down.
Our client requests that these statements made by your client be publicly corrected.
If you have any questions in relation to this letter, please contact me on the number below.
Yours faithfully
John Weber