INTERNATIONAL jets carrying thousands of passengers are flying unsupervised across Australian skies with foreign pilots who do not understand correct collision-avoidance procedures.
Source: The Australian
Air traffic controllers have described the situation as a "disaster waiting to happen", revealing they often have to brief foreign pilots in mid-flight about the measures they must follow to avoid mid-air collisions in unsupervised Australian airspace.
The situation, described last night by former Civil Aviation Safety Authority chairman Dick Smith as "incredibly unsafe", has arisen because a critical shortage of air traffic controllers is leaving large chunks of Australian airspace unsupervised. Australia is one of the few countries in the world that allows passenger jets to fly through unsupervised airspace.
CASA claims it is safe but Qantas instructs its pilots to avoid unsupervised airspace where possible....
Chilling private conversations between air traffic controllers in online industry forums reveal serious safety concerns about the NOTAMS, or Notice to Airmen instructions, given to foreign pilots to avoid collisions while flying through unsupervised Australian airspace.
"It quickly became apparent that none of the international crews -- Malaysian Airlines, Thai Airways, Singapore Airlines -- understood the procedures," a Brisbane-based controller wrote last week.
"There is a serious deficiency in what advice/briefing these crews are receiving. I don't think the NOTAMS spell out exactly what they are getting themselves, and the 300 trusting souls down the back of each of these flights, into."
Peter McGuane, executive secretary of the air traffic controller's union Civil Air, said last night there was growing "concern amongst air traffic controllers that not all flight crews and potentially international crews are familiar with the (safety) procedures in unsupervised airspace".
"Our members are telling us they need to provide briefings to pilots in flight about the correct procedures," he said. "I believe that the travelling public would hold genuine concerns that the airspace they were flying through was not subject to air traffic control supervision."
When flying through unsupervised airspace, pilots must rely on themselves and other pilots to avoid collisions by keeping track of developments on a common frequency.
But air traffic controllers say foreign pilots sometimes tune into the wrong frequency or do not understand the procedures because they do not have unsupervised airspace in their own countries.
The president of the Australian and International Pilots Association, Ian Woods, said CASA needed to respond to the concerns raised by the controllers: "CASA needs to lift its game and make a decision as to whether this airspace is suitable or unsuitable."
CASA spokesman Peter Gibson maintained that the current procedures for operating in unsupervised airspace were safe.
"It is not inherently unsafe, but it is not as efficient as when you have a controller," he said.
He said CASA was not saying that airlines had to fly through the airspace and had left it up to individual airlines to decide.
A spokesman for Airservices Australia, which manages air traffic controllers, said the safety procedures for unsupervised airspace were determined by the International Civil Aviation Organisation and were contained in required flight documents.
Large amounts of Australian airspace are increasingly unsupervised because of a national shortfall of between 20 and 80 air controllers.
Several flights between Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra were delayed or diverted at the weekend after a shortage of controllers caused an area northwest of Canberra to go unsupervised for two hours.
Last night, airspace outside of Brisbane was also believed to be unsupervised.
Mr Smith said it was absurd that Australian authorities allowed passenger jets to fly in unsupervised airspace. "It is incredibly unsafe. I find it amazing it could ever be allowed to happen," he said. "In other countries, they would not allow aircraft to fly in that airspace.
"Pilots are not air traffic controllers, they don't have the training to work out exactly where they are (in relation to other aircraft). The whole thing is incredible."
In online forums, one air traffic controller gives his version of an alleged mid-air incident last month between Thai Airways and British Airways jets over central Australia.
The controller wrote: "There was a clear conflict -- a few miles apart -- between a Thai Boeing 777 and a British Airways Boeing 777 crossing in (unmanned airspace). Personally, there is no way I would have flown on these aircraft if, as an innocent passenger, I knew what was going on.
"It was extremely scary to watch it on the screen ...
"I seriously doubt if any of the 250-odd paying passengers would have chosen to continue this flight in (unmanned airspace) had they known the ramifications and just how easily it all could have come undone. We have a massive duty of care here no matter what the circumstances, and to be honest the current published procedures for (unmanned airspace) is a disaster waiting to happen."