Source: The Australian (24 July 2008)
By: Cameron Stewart - Associate Editor  

VIRGIN Blue, Qantas and Jetstar have called for a review of safety procedures for flying through uncontrolled airspace after being told by the federal Government the problem is likely to get worse.

Major airlines met yesterday with the Government's air traffic control manager Airservices Australia to seek new and better guidelines on flying through and around uncontrolled airspace.

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority also held separate meetings with Airservices yesterday about safety issues relating to uncontrolled airspace amid growing concern about the issue....

The moves come after warnings by air traffic controllers, revealed in The Australian, that flying through uncontrolled airspace is dangerous and that many pilots are unclear about the correct avoidance procedures.

It also comes after CASA said it would investigate an incident over Canberra on July 12 when a US-registered small plane reportedly came within 60 seconds of a collision with a Jetstar Airbus.

A shortage of controllers has left large chunks of Australian skies unmonitored, leaving pilots to rely only on radio and visual communication with other pilots to avoid mid-air collisions.

Former CASA chief Dick Smith has described the situation as "incredibly unsafe", saying few other countries in the world would allow passenger jets to fly through uncontrolled airspace.

Airservices has told airlines the incidence of uncontrolled airspace is likely to increase in the months ahead because of an ongoing shortage of controllers.

A spokeswoman for Virgin Blue said the airlines requested the meeting with Airservices to "address some procedural issues and to review the current policy and to seek consistent contingency procedures for operating in TIBA (uncontrolled) airspace".

A spokesman for Airservices, Richard Dudley, said the meeting discussed the need to make pilots more aware of the correct procedures for flying through uncontrolled airspace. "We need to ensure that if there are shortcoming or a lack of awareness (about uncontrolled airspace) that these are addressed," he said. "The meeting also discussed the possibility of safe air traffic routes around (uncontrolled) air space."

A spokesman for CASA said its meeting with Airservices discussed risk management in relation to the proliferation of uncontrolled airspace.

Yesterday's series of meetings about the safety aspects of uncontrolled airspace raise doubts about claims made by both CASA and Airservices that the risks of flying in uncontrolled airspace are minimal and that current procedures are adequate.

Qantas has instructed its pilots to avoid uncontrolled airspace where possible, while Jetstar and Virgin also try to avoid it but fly through it more frequently than Qantas. However, international passenger jets fly through it regularly despite warnings by air traffic controllers that foreign pilots have little understanding of safety procedures because they do not have uncontrolled airspace in their own countries.

Qantas has refused to answer questions from The Australian about the safety of uncontrolled airspace, except to say "the Qantas group is working with Airservices to ensure we are fully briefed of all developments".

Virgin Blue chief Brett Godfrey blasted the management of Australia's air traffic control system, saying it was infuriating that a handful of people could hold the country to ransom because of inadequate staffing.

He said airlines were being doubly penalised by strict curfew rules and an air traffic control system that was thrown into chaos every time three or four people were sick. He said Virgin carried more people than it needed so that if a pilot did not show up for work, there were others ready to fly the aircraft.