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Editorial opinion: Who’s watching the watchers?

Posted by:  Posted date: September 06, 2011 | comment : 0


Updated Sep 8, 2011

The mismanagement of serious safety issues at Archerfield Airport, as we’ve reported today, is far from being an isolated case; it has become endemic. For many years now, successive governments on both sides of politics have sat by and watched their various aviation agencies failing to deliver on their obligations to the travelling public and to the community in terms of safety, utility and equity.

Those agencies are Airservices Australia, the Australian Transportation Safety Bureau (ATSB), the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) and the Department of Infrastructure & Transport (DOIT), and in this case an Airport Building Controller (ABC), a company appointed under contract by DOIT. ABC also consults to the Department as necessary on matters such as the interpretation of regulations.

The Archerfield Airport Chamber of Commerce’s (AACC) complaints, endorsed by other industry leaders, detail several specific air safety issues which include:

  • The approval and building of two hangars that infringe safety-margin “obstacle limitation airspace” above and around runway ends. This is a long established safety imperative and its violation seems to convey a breathtaking disregard for safety regulation by all concerned.
  • The misuse of designated “public safety areas” contrary to Queensland State Planning Laws and safety; in this case by allowing a parking area for heavy earthmoving and other machinery, in an area which among other things is supposed to limit risk to the general public by limiting access, and also to provide an obstacle-free area for distressed aircraft, for example in the case of an engine failure on short final approach; and
  • An excavated road culvert across the end of a runway. If a ditch like this had been similarly located off the end of the runway at Bangkok, it would almost certainly have resulted in Qantas’ first-ever fatal jet accident when QF1 overran the runway there in September 1999. A disturbing number of airline overrun accidents all over the world have been caused when aircraft were destroyed by similar obstacles.

Surely the ATSB must interest itself in these issues? Well…..sort of. Two years after the initial complaint it issued a report, whose vigorously disputed conclusions are contested in the AACC’s analysis which can be downloaded here.

Does CASA, as part of its responsibility for all things to do with air safety, have a role in all this? Yes it does, but that role seems to have been limited to directing that Airservices Australia issue a notice to airmen (NOTAM) warning that a runway has in effect been shortened (in some cases shortened so much that some aircraft can’t take off at all); advising the media that the AACC’s claims were “baseless”; and announcing that its report on why they were baseless would “soon be released”. It hasn’t been released yet, possibly because the ATSB report was deemed to have delivered all the answers.

In fact, on the issue of erecting buildings in airspace that is supposed to be reserved for aeroplanes, CASA has actually claimed that it has no authority to act. One wonders who has such authority, and why it hasn’t been exercised.

The pattern that emerges from issues like this, is that there is far more (even if not total) corporate observance of safety requirements around major airports than exists at their general aviation counterparts, notwithstanding that Archerfield, Brisbane’s only secondary airport, has up to 350,000 aircraft movements annually. Even if the occupants averaged only two per flight, this would mean that something like 700,000 lives annually are being exposed to avoidable risk.

But what’s the problem with the appropriate government agency exercising its authority and simply insisting on compliance with the conditions of the head lease? The relevant clauses specifying the obligations of airport leasing companies would appear to be:


9.2         The lessee must maintain the runways, taxiways, pavements and all parts of the airport essential for safe access by air transport to a standard no less than the standard at the commencement of the lease.

Pretty straightforward, wouldn’t you say? In that context there appears to be no provision at all for the closure of, shortening or realignment of runways and taxiways, the erection of buildings or other obstacles, or the  degradation of public safety areas. Elsewhere in the lease are requirements that:


13.1   Development of the airport site:

Throughout the term the lessee must develop the airport site at its own cost and expense having regard to:

(a)     the actual and anticipated growth in, and the pattern of, traffic demand for the airport site;

(b)    the quality standards reasonably expected of such an airport in Australia; and

(c)     good business practice.

Surely the ATSB and CASA have no motivation to turn a blind eye to breaches of contract which result in safety deficiencies. At least in this matter, Airservices Australia is largely a spectator.

And we certainly can’t blame Minister Albanese, because he declared on the record when opening CASA’s new Brisbane Headquarters: “And nothing, I repeat nothing, is as important in aviation as safety!”

So who benefits? Surely only the Archerfield Airport Corporation.

Did the Australian government intend that airport leasing companies should be able to gain a financial benefit by ignoring their contractual obligations to the Commonwealth?

Almost certainly not. However, there may be a resolution of these issues right at the Minister’s fingertips.

An Australian National Audit Office document titled Review Of Auditor-General’s Reports 1997-98 recorded that in the post-sale process the DoTRD [then Department of Transport and Regional Development] was responsible for administering the airport leases, enforcing any Commonwealth rights and ensuring the obligations of the Commonwealth and the lessee were met. “To this end, the ANAO recommended that DoTRD should develop a comprehensive framework or procedures in order to allow it to monitor and enforce lessee’s compliance with the airport leases. The DoTRD gave qualified agreement to this recommendation.”

When the Committee asked DoTRD why it only accepted the ANAO’s recommendation with qualification, Mr Mike Mrdak, [then] Assistant Secretary, Airports, DoTRD, replied that  the Department considered that it was “performing its monitoring obligations relating to all relevant provisions of the leases appropriately.”

But Mr Mrdak added that although the Department recognised the ANAO’s findings, it had established “a comprehensive framework to allow it to discharge its obligations.” He emphasised that while a system has now been developed within DoTRD to monitor development commitments and compliance with a range of other issues, it remained the view at the time of the ANAO’s report that the Department was already meeting its obligations.

We understand that Mr Mrdak, now the Secretary of Mr Albanese’s Department, was at that time a member of the five-person committee that selected the successful bidders for the airport head leases. As Department Secretary Mr Mrdak’s work with the Infrastructure and Transport portfolio includes management of international and domestic aviation policy and regulation, and the airport sales and regulation program. In the light of similar disputes at all of the secondary airports, surely it must now be appropriate that the ANAO review the performance and the records of DOIT’s “comprehensive framework” by means of an independent audit of the ongoing process, so that the Minister can be confident that his Department and organisations within its oversight are still “appropriately monitoring and enforcing compliance with the obligations” of airport leasing companies.

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