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McCormick finishes at CASA as Chief – Is this history repeating??

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 Blunder puts pressure on Australia’s safety bodies

Australia’s air safety regime is in political and operational crisis in the aftermath of an embarrassing maintenance blunder by major operator Ansett Australia and widespread complaints about the safety regulator, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA).

With CASA conducting a major investigation into Ansett’s lapse – the airline failed to conduct a required check on its Boeing B767- 200 fleet for two years – the authority itself is now being audited by the country’s air safety investigator, the Australian Transportation Safety Board (ATSB). The board wants to know why proper oversight was not maintained over the airline.

In the midst of this furore, smaller airlines have accused CASA of being too lenient on Ansett, failing to impose any penalties and allowing it to put aircraft back into operation before the checks were completed.

Ansett voluntarily grounded the seven jets on December 23, but they were flying again by the end of the month. But two of the planes had to be taken out of service again on January 18 after inspections found hairline cracks in the planes’ tails.

As the row developed over CASA’s handling of the issue, a former authority chairman, Dick Smith, launched a verbal broadside at senior aviation bureaucrats, describing the ATSB as a “basket case” plagued by political interference. He wants it to be given total independence like the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

If that is not enough for Australian Transport Minister, John Anderson, who is under siege from the national opposition political party for his handling of safety issues, two key transportation and safety officials had quit their posts by mid-January.

Ms Carol Boughton, director of safety investigations at the ATSB, handed in her resignation, insisting she was leaving not because of recent events, but to join a family business. She took charge of the ATSB investigators last year after long-time head Dr Rob Lee left, frustrated at what he claimed was political interference in investigators’ work.

It was also confirmed Peter Harris, a deputy secretary in the Department of Transport, is leaving the public service to take up a position at Ansett.

While there has been simmering unrest in Australia’s air safety community for some time the Ansett affair has brought concerns to the surface.

The airline grounded the B767-200s after discovering safety checks recommended by Boeing had not been done.

In the middle of the busiest travel period of the year, Ansett was forced to take a huge lump of capacity out of the sky. With a major CASA investigation underway, senior management is clearly red-faced.

At a special meeting of CASA on January 9 Ansett general manager, technical operations, Trevor Jensen, told the regulator a highly experienced Ansett technical officer received notifi-cation from Boeing two years ago warning him of the need for a major overhaul of ageing 767s after 25,000 take-off and landing cycles.

The officer interpreted this as meaning 50,000 cycles overall and, because Ansett’s planes were then at only 25,000 cycles, he filed it. The notification came to light again just three days before Christmas and Ansett acted immediately although the groundings affected the travel of 18,000 passengers. Jensen described the event as a “human factor” failing.

“The guy has come forward and is so embarrassed. He is going through retraining,” he told CASA.

The airline proposed a nine-point plan for reform, including measures to establish why its procedures failed to pick up the mistake. CASA accepted the explanation, causing further controversy when it granted the carrier a dispensation to resume flights on condition the work was carried out within 90 days and fortnightly inspections were made on each jet.

The regulator launched a full-scale audit of Ansett’s safety procedures. CASA chief, Mick Toller, wants a report on the investigation quickly and has ordered an internal inquiry to find out how its own staff missed the inspection deadline.

  CASA chief, Mick toller:
ordered an internal inquiry

Ansett’s Jensen said the airline would continue to provide any information CASA wants. “Removing aircraft from our operation at Christmas time was obviously a hard call, but not a difficult decision. Although we apologise for any disruption that was caused to passengers, our decision to ground the aircraft was based on our commitment to safety. Our stance is that safety is of paramount importance at any time of the year,” he said.

After news of the latest groundings, Jensen said the airline had accelerated B767 inspections, alerted CASA again and acted to bring aircraft subject to the checks into the hangar early.

“The kind of cracking we’ve detected is not an uncommon occurrence in aircraft. They are designed to be damage tolerant and withstand these minor airframe cracks. Nevertheless, there will be no compromise to the safe operation of our aircraft.”

Others have also been caught up in the controversy. Boeing is unhappy over the language used by the ATSB in its announcement that it would investigate the Ansett affair and CASA’s role. The investigator said it would include in its inquiry “an examination of Boeing aircraft airworthiness”.

That raised the Seattle planemakers hackles, with spokeswoman Lori Gunter saying Boeing had demanded immediate action when the oversight was uncovered. She said the incident had been about a mistake by Ansett and no one had questioned the airworthiness of the B767s involved.

The ATSB later clarified its comment, and said the reference to Boeing related to the “relationship between the manufacturer and the airline operator to ensure the maintenance of continuing airworthiness”.

One of Australia’s new trunk route jet operators also entered the debate. Impulse Airlines executive chairman, Gerry McGowan, accused CASA of treating major airlines more leniently than smaller carriers. He suggested the latter would not have been allowed back in the air as quickly as Ansett.

He pointed to a recent grounding of a regional operator, Yanda Airlines, and said he doubted if its breaches were as serious as Ansett’s. “I guess my only comment is there always should be a level playing field.” A CASA spokesman rejected the claim.

CASA has begun to address some of its problems by hiring more skilled inspectors, but publicity surrounding the Ansett affair as well as adverse media reports throughout 1999 and into 2000 about alleged safety problems involving Ansett’s rival Qantas Airways – most of them unsubstantiated – have undermined public confidence.

It did not help CASA’s case when news broke last November that Toller himself had breached safety procedures by failing to correctly document an aircraft defect on a plane hired for a private flight. He was counselled on the matter by one of his area managers, but survived calls from opposition politicians that he should be stood down.

It is believed the Federal Government is considering a review of the system, particularly in relation to how major airlines are allowed to “self administer” many aspects of safety regulation.

Former CASA chairman Dick Smith argues the ATSB is far from independent and claims past investigations into CASA have failed to dramatically change an aviation “mateship system” which meant the regulator was too soft on airlines.

  Impulse Airlines: its executive chairman, Gerry McGowan, has accused cAsA of treating major airlines more leniently than smaller carriers

He believed airlines should be prosecuted for safety breaches. “Airlines are breaking safety rules. You can be a major airline and break any aviation rule and you never get fined,” he added.

Nevertheless, industry insiders point out that whatever arguments are being put forward for changes to the system, Australian aviation and its airlines continue to boast a safety record unparalleled in the world.

At the same time the system is never likely to be placed under more of a microscope. In addition to the CASA investigation of Ansett and its own internal inquiry and the ATSB investigation into CASA, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is due to make a regular audit of aviation safety administration in Australia this year.

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