The Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) decided to make history on 1 July 2011 by grounding an entire airline - Tiger Airways for almost six weeks over the incidents in which the same pilot twice flown too low into airports in Melbourne within a time-frame of slightly more than 3 weeks in June. The suspension on Tiger Airways has being partially lifted by CASA on 10 August with the imposition of new conditions on Tiger's air operator's certificate. These conditions include pilot training and proficiency, fatigue management, revision of operational manuals and limiting Tiger to 18 flights per day for the rest of August (Australian, 10 August).
Due to the way our media reported the grounding saga with the repeated use of the terms “safety concern” and “flying too low” without given any specific details, I notice that most Australians I have spoken to have no knowledge of the background stories of the two incidents.
To understand the backgrounds stories myself, I have to bear the boredom of having to read through hundreds of reports from more than half a dozen newspapers with the same kind of ambiguity; and finally managed to find some useful information between the lines from one of the News Limited and Sydney Morning Herald reports:
Background stories of the two flying too low incidents
The first incident took place on 7th June. According to News Limited, air traffic control had cleared the Airbus to approach runway at Melbourne Airport at 2500 feet. As the plane was approaching 2000 feet, air traffic control told the flight crew they should be at 2500 feet, the plane climbed to that level and landed safely. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) investigation revealed “the error was due to an incorrect lower descent altitude in the commercial navigational database.”
The 2nd incident took place on 30th June at Avalon airport. Tiger flight aborted landing due to a higher-than-expected tailwind. Sydney Morning Herald report revealed: The ground controller advised the pilots to climb to 3000 feet, which they did, and then the pilots advised controllers they would perform a tear-drop shaped U-turn for the second landing approach, which the controller approved. The aircraft left its assigned altitude of 3000 feet without an airways clearance. The plane descended further and levelled off at 1600 feet (400 feet below the official minimum), which is queried by the controller: ''Are you happy with the terrain there, you are showing one thousand six hundred [feet]?'', to which the pilots responded ''Yeh, … affirm, we are visual”. The controller responded: “OK thanks.”
Low Tiger flights no danger
According to Lawrie Cox, of the pilots' union: “The pilot at the centre of the incidents was ''very experienced'' on both domestic and long-haul trips,” “from our point of view, at no stage was either aircraft, passengers or crew in any significant risk of being in an accident” (WA Today, 9 July); Martin Dolan, ATSB chief commissioner also pointed out that: “There's a substantial safety buffer built into the minimum safe altitude arrangements, which means there was no serious threat to the safety of the aircraft” (Sydney Morning Herald, 14 July).
In fact, Tiger wasn’t the only airline with flight approaching airport in Melbourne at below the official minimum. The latest incident reported by the Herald Sun took place on 2nd August involved a Thai Airways jet flew at about 1000 feet below the permitted height over central Melbourne.”
CASA response and the cost to Tiger Airways
Instead of grounding the pilot involved pending full investigation, CASA decided to ground the entire airline immediately after the 2nd incident at a time of school holiday’s peak travel season. The justification, according to CASA spokesman Peter Gibson: “It's not so much the mistakes in themselves, the individual mistakes of the pilots, it's the pattern you're seeing of safety issues arising over and over again within the airline.”
As a result of the grounding, Tiger was expected to cause “frustration to passengers who had booked flights, causing the cancellation of 60 flights - affecting about 9000 passengers - every day” (Herald Sun, 27 July), and face “a bill approaching an estimated $1 million a day in refunding air fares”, plus the cost of leasing airplanes, parking fees and wages including the base salary of about 100 pilots. (Brisbane Times, 4 July).
Tiger’s Australia Chief, Crawford Rix tendered his resignation (Herald Sun, 7 July). The new CEO’s Tony Davis decided to hire former Qantas chief pilot Chris Manning as safety director to demonstrate the Airline commitment to air safety (The Australian, 19 July).
CASA may have partially lifted its ban on Tiger on 10 August, the damage to Tiger reputation is so enormous that a number of evening news channels reported the same responses from virtually everyone they interviewed. That is, they will not travel with Tiger in the future.
Qantas Safety Records
The irony is, Qantas has years of appalling air-safety incidents in and outside Australia but largely tolerated by CASA. The following were just a selection of some of the incidents in the first 7 months of 2011:
· 17 July (SMH): a Qantas flight was forced to turn around two hours into its journey from Johannesburg to Sydney after an engine malfunctioned;
· 20 May (SMH): a Qantas flight bound for London has returned to Bangkok shortly after take-off because an engine had to be shut down;
· 17 May (SMH): a Qantas flight from Singapore to Melbourne was diverted to Adelaide after the flight crew found the plane was not carrying enough fuel;
· 13 April (SMH): Qantas flight from Auckland requested priority landing at Sydney due to fuel valve problem;
· 28 March (SMH): a Perth-bound Qantas flight returned to Adelaide after smoke entered the cabin from a malfunctioning oven;
· 24 March (SMH): Qantas flight from the Philippines to Sydney was forced to land in Cairns after midair emergency as pilots grapple with two cockpit fires;
· 23 March (SMH): air investigators have found overloaded Qantas Airbus (exceeding its maximum structural take-off weight by almost a tonne) flying from Sydney to Hong Kong was a risk to flight safety. The safety bureau then trawled its records and found 28 freight load control incidents at Qantas in the 2½ years to last August;
· 25 Jan (Courier mail): due to air conditioning system failure, a Melbourne-bound Qantas flight reportedly plunged 26,000 feet during a mid-air drama;
· 19 Jan (SMH): a Qantas flight from Sydney to New York was forced to divert to Fiji after a flight crew spotted a fault in a fuel valve.
During the year 2010, there were a series of mid-air explosions resulted in Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce admitted in February 2011 at the Melbourne Press Club: “the airline needs to rebuild its brand”(SMH).
The following were just a few selected incidents to demonstrate the severity of safety concerned:
· 19 November (SMH): a report in the US revealed that shrapnel from the engine blast over Indonesia in early November punctured the fuel tank in the wing of a Qantas A380. It appears to be a matter of sheer luck that the fuel did not ignite and cause an explosion;
· 6 November (ABC): A Qantas QF6 flying out of Singapore had to shut down an engine at 2,000 feet as passengers aboard reported seeing flames and sparks flying out of the engine before the plane turned around;
· 1 September (SMH): a Qantas plane left San Francisco for Sydney was forced to turn around after flames streaming from an engine after it failed and punched a hole in the metal shell around it;
· 25 May (ABC): two tyres on a Qantas A380 burst on landing at Sydney Airport. This is the second incident in as many days;
· 30 March (ABC): some engine problems forced a Qantas jumbo jet to turned back to Sydney airport, dumping fuel on the way to meet landing requirements after half an hour into a flight to Singapore;
· 29 March (ABC): a union that represents Qantas engineers demanded CASA to investigate into safety breaches at the airline includes a case where a plane flew with a cracked cockpit window;
· 19 February (ABC): a Shanghai-bound Qantas plane was forced to return to Sydney after the pilot realised the plane's landing gear would not retract into its underbelly.
Dating back further, Qantas has a very long history of serious air safety incidents. But it is a true blue Australian Airline, CASA appears to have tolerated “the pattern you're seeing of safety issues arising over and over again within the airline.” For example, on 13 November 2008, Sydney Morning Herald reported a poll conducted by UMR Omnibus showing “63 per cent of Australians believe the airline's safety standards have become worse over the last few years.” However, despite a series of mid-air emergencies in 2008, a special CASA investigation team insisted “there is no evidence that safety standards at Qantas have fallen.” (Sydney Morning Herald, 13 November 2008).
By comparing the air-safety records between Tiger and Qantas and the treatment of Qantas by CASA, it is not hard for one to come to a logical conclusion that, the treatment of Tiger Airways has being unreasonably harsh, unfair and malicious in nature.
It would appear to any reasonable thinking person that the so-called “air-safety” concern may be just an excuse to destroy a foreign competition within the domestic market in Australia.
When will the Elites in Australia learn to practice what they preaches to uphold the so-called “Australian values” of “Fair-go” and “equality”?
May mankind learn to accept and treat each other fairly and equally for the sack of peace and humanity.
Written on 10 August 2011
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