Houston we have a problem??

19 Jun

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I thought it had gone a bit quiet from my Monday’s post #33 – ‘The Trough Runneth over’Huh  However apparently that was just the opening salvo & Dick Smith & Co was just gathering together reinforcements… Big Grin

Courtesy of Friday’s the Oz – Oh Dear! Blush

Angus Houston, we have a problem with air traffic control

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Reporter
Sydney

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Ballina Byron Gateway Airport manager Neil Weatherson would like to have radio operators at his airport; he thinks firefighters could do the job. Picture: Lyndon Mechielsen Source: News Corp Australia

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Ballina airport, in northern NSW, handles big volumes of tourist traffic but still lacks local air traffic control. Source: Supplied

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Airspace row. Source: TheAustralian

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Flying without a voice. Source: TheAustralian

The call came through to Dick Smith from the Chief of Air Force’s office: would Mr Smith be available to come down to Canberra to meet with Angus Houston? He could park his car in the air marshal’s own space.

In his Sydney office, Smith was chuffed. The businessman and aviator held Houston in high regard, and they had both been championing big reforms to the nation’s air traffic control system, to adopt the well-proven model employed in the US, where they had both flown extensively.

It was April 8, 2002, when Smith arrived at the Russell offices.

“I was met by people all in uniform and end up in this big office Houston had overlooking Canberra,” Smith tells The Australian.

At the back of his mind was that the then Coalition government, which had announced the move to the US-style National Airspace System, was soon to announce an implementation group to make it happen.

Smith, who had enormous practical aviation experience as well as having chaired top aviation bodies, naturally thought he’d be called to be on it.

“Everyone said, ‘You need to be on the implementation team,’ ” Smith says. “I’d gone to Europe, to the US, to Canada, to study the airspace.”

What happened in Houston’s office left Smith first gobsmacked, then angry.

“When I get there, Houston says, ‘Ah, Dick, I have decided it would be better if you were not on the implementation team,’ ” Smith says.

Smith was shocked — he told Houston he strongly believed if he were not directly involved in the implementation, the changes would not come in. Houston told him he was wrong: Defence was totally committed to the airspace changes, and they would go ahead.

A few weeks later then transport minister John Anderson did indeed write to tell Smith he would not be on the implementation group.

Smith says the whole thing was based on vested interests who did not really want change: departmental officials, civilian air traffic controllers and their air force counterparts.

In 2008 Smith wrote an “I told you so” letter pointing out to Houston that the air force chief’s stated belief in 2002 that the NAS system could be introduced without him, Dick Smith, had proved wrong.

“In the end, nothing happens. Absolutely nothing,” Smith says. “They spent millions of dollars, they had all sorts of people involved.”

Smith admits he bears a grudge against Houston over the affair, but says he is upset because of what’s happening, or rather not happening, now.

Since 2011 Houston has been on the board of, and since 2012 chaired, Airservices Australia, the government-owned but industry-funded organisation that runs the nation’s air traffic control system, including firefighters at airports.

In that position, and with his former RAAF colleague Margaret Staib appointed chief executive of Airservices in 2012, Houston could implement elements of the US ­system right now, Smith says.

“He’s the boss, he’s the chairman, he should just say, go ahead and do it,” Smith says.
Documents provided to The Australian by Smith show Houston was, in the early 2000s, thoroughly committed to introducing the US system. In a 2003 letter to Smith, Houston wrote that “Defence remains fully behind the NAS”, and in another to an advisory group that year said it should be consistent with the US system.

But 13 years on, it hasn’t happened and Houston has been ­silent.

While in the US and Canada, air traffic controllers guide commercial aircraft throughout all airspace, whether radar is available or not, Australia still has a piecemeal situation where some areas are designated controlled airspace but others not.

In the uncontrolled airspace, even though the aircraft may still be under radar coverage, national air traffic controllers are not allowed to guide them below 8500 feet, and pilots have to talk to each other on radio to try to maintain separation and avoid smashing into each other.

Another aspect of the US system, which allows regional airports without control towers to use stationed staff such as firefighters to give pilots basic weather and air traffic information via the Unicom radio, has not been introduced.

Civil Aviation Safety Authority rules ban anyone apart from those who have been air traffic controllers within the past 10 years from using the Unicom to provide any but the most basic weather information, and ban any discussion of local air traffic.

Not only do penalties apply to anyone who provides unauthorised traffic and weather information to pilots, but the pilots can be punished for using it.

Soon after The Australian exposed the restrictive rules last month, CASA issued a statement saying it would consider applications to train non-air traffic controllers stationed at airports to man the Unicom to provide pilots with basic local air traffic information and weather, and provide a legal exemption to do so.

Smith says this opening could mean that at regional airports which do not have control towers, but which are big enough to have significant air traffic, firefighters, baggage handlers, check-in staff, or refuellers could be trained to provide pilots with basic local air traffic and weather.

This would appear to provide Houston with just what he said he always wanted: the chance to introduce one part of the US system, by getting some of his 900 firefighters and support staff at “untowered” airports around the nation to man the Unicom.

The idea has been supported by, among others, the manager of Ballina airport on the NSW north coast, Neil Weatherson, who wants to introduce radio operators and regards it as commercially sensible for the 17 firefighters stationed there to do it, rather than hire a new separate crew.

Houston has been on leave overseas and unavailable for comment, Airservices says.
Spokesman Rob Walker says training the firefighters to use the Unicom “is not currently being considered”.

Australian Federation of Air Pilots president David Booth has expressed support for the move.

But according to Smith and others, Airservices does not have the stomach to take on the air traffic controllers union, Civil Air, which has registered its opposition to relinquishing an inch of its monopoly on air traffic information.

An increasing number of aviation industry figures are calling on Houston to take charge and introduce those aspects of the US system that are within his direct control, such as the firefighters becoming radio operators.

While some measures, such as extending controlled airspace wherever reliable radar is available, would also involve CASA, the figures say Houston is in a commanding position to lobby for the changes and make them happen.

Booth, a commercial airline captain, also supports Smith’s proposal to extend controlled airspace, although he notes it would demand more air traffic controllers, and adjustments to rules governing recreational flyers.

“Controlled airspace is the safest environment to fly in because in many cases you are positively separated,” Booth says.

One industry figure calling on Houston to show leadership is Bill Hamilton, an ex-Qantas 747 pilot who represented the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association on various airspace reform panels in the 1990s and 2000s.

“I have a lot of respect for Angus Houston,” Hamilton says. “But as a senior leader with that portfolio, why not use the resources you have to best advantage to minimise the risk?

“I don’t think not doing so is excusable in a safety issue.”

So far Houston has been able to maintain a low profile, and Staib has taken the flak over a range of other controversies at Airservices.

These include a 40 per cent increase in the salary pool and 60 per cent rise in the bonuses pool for senior executives last financial year; suggestions of large travel allowances; and failing to clear proposed capital works, involving tens of millions of dollars, with a Senate committee.

Airservices said changes in the composition of the senior executive group made year-on-year salary and bonus comparison not meaningful, and claimed the rises between 2012-13 and 2013-14 represented an evening-out of historical salary levels, with the average remuneration increase being only 2.25 per cent.

Airservices later admitted the 2.25 per cent covered only salaries, and now says all up, with bonuses, the average rise was 5.2 per cent.

Smith and others, including politicians who have been grilling Airservices officials in Senate estimates hearings over a lack of transparency and accountability, say Houston, as chairman, has to take his share of responsibility.

Airservices’ approach to the media shows little sense of needing to be accountable, with inquiries, even those submitted before 9am, not usually answered by the end of the day and with responses often more akin to platitudes than answers.

The media officers’ responses can, of course, only be as good as their well-salaried bosses want them to be.

Asked if The Australian could speak to a couple of fireys about how they would feel about helping pilots on the radio, spokeswoman Amanda Palmer says: “In terms of interviewing firefighters on station — it is also our policy to not allow our operational staff to comment on non-operational matters.”

Unanswered questions

Apart from the air traffic control issue, Airservices Australia is under scrutiny for an increase in its executive salary pool of more than 40 per cent, a rise in the executive performance bonus pool of 60 per cent, and suggestions some senior executives outside the organisation’s headquarters in Canberra have huge travel allowances.
Here are some questions Airservices has so far not answered:
• What is the breakdown of the salaries, bonuses, paid-out leave and paid-out long-service entitlements, and months worked for each of the 10 senior executives in 2012-13 and the 11 in 2013-14, not mentioning their names or positions?
• Is it correct that there are four senior Airservices executives who are not based in Canberra and who have each accounted for in the order of $90,000 in travel expenses annually, upon which Airservices also has to pay fringe benefits tax?
• Airservices has confirmed chief executive Margaret Staib’s current remuneration, including superannuation, bonuses and the like, is $600,000. Is it correct that when she first took up her position in 2012, her total remuneration on the same basis was about $500,000? If not, what was her starting remuneration?

Err…Angus & Wazza…tick..tick..tick..tick..tick

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MTF…P2 Tongue

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