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Civil Aviation Authority is taking legal action against the Bureau of Air Safety Investigation's confidential information gathering -

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ELLEN FANNING: The Civil Aviation Authority has been accused of jeopardising air crash investigations. Every time a plane has an accident here in Australia, the Bureau of Air Safety Investigations conducts a closed-door inquiry, but the Civil Aviation Authority is trying to crack that confidentiality, a move which has disturbed the entire airline industry. Ray Moynihan reports.

ROY MOYNIHAN: Early this morning, just north of Melbourne airport, another twin engine plane crashes. The pilot dies. When the team from the Bureau of Air Safety Investigations turn up and start talking to people about this crash, those conversations will be confidential, or that's been the process until now. The Civil Aviation Authority is currently taking legal action that could undermine that principle of confidential information gathering. When people in the industry talk to the Bureau of Air Safety Investigations, they say it's something like talking to a priest in the confessional.

JOHN ALLDIS: It allows for people to make confidential reports and statements to the Bureau of Air Safety Investigations and their anonymity is preserved. That's a very important plank in air safety.

PETER SKINNER: It's purely a system to allow BASI to get hold of all the facts so that they can then make a determination as to what was the cause of a matter, and the real benefit comes to the industry in so far as that what they are able to do is to look at what trends may be developing, and therefore, as a result of that, they can put or recommend that some remedial action take place or some corrective legislation be put into place, so that the whole thing just provides a better service to the airlines and the pilots, and the other people who use the facilities, and ultimately, of course, the travelling public.

ROY MOYNIHAN: The battle between BASI and the CAA has emerged from the coronial inquest into last year's Monarch airlines' crash. The CAA is trying to force BASI to hand over its records of confidential interviews in the Monarch case. BASI has refused. At the Coroner's inquest here in Sydney's Downing Centre, the Civil Aviation Authority has argued it's in the public interest to make all the relevant information public. The Bureau of Air Safety Investigations argues it's in the public interest to maintain the confidentiality of its sources. The Coroner agrees.

Two weeks ago, Coroner, Peter Gould, handed down his ruling, saying 'I am satisfied that if BASI is to effectively discharge its obligations, it must be able to receive information confidentially'. The CAA has appealed the Coroner's decision to the Supreme Court. Senior figures in the industry are so disturbed by these developments, they've decided to speak out in support of the Bureau of Air Safety Investigations and its confidentiality procedures.

GRAEME MCMAHON: Because people do fear that if information becomes public, it could jeopardise their positions, or their careers, whatever it may be. We believe that that information should be retained as confidential within BASI, specifically in relation to major accidents and incidents.

ROY MOYNIHAN: When accidents like this happen, the Bureau of Air Safety Investigations wants to talk to engineers, pilots, and others, about exactly what went wrong.

GRAEME MCMAHON: Our experience is that people do get very concerned when there is a risk that the information that they are providing will become public, and that their name could be associated with it, and therefore I think it's most important that BASI be able to go ahead and conduct their investigations without fear or favour, and obtain the best information from anybody that might have it.

ROY MOYNIHAN: How important is it that the Bureau of Air Safety Investigations maintain this confidentiality arrangement that they have with people they interview.

JOHN ALLDIS: Vital, because we will not get any of our members giving evidence or giving statements to the bureau if they're unable to preserve their anonymity. It's just not going to happen, and a fundamental plank of air safety in Australia will be removed.

ROY MOYNIHAN: Along with the engineers, the pilots are also extremely concerned about the CAA's actions.

If the CAA win this case in the Supreme Court, what are the implications for air safety in Australia?

PETER SKINNER: The implications are that air safety would be seriously degraded because BASI would not be given the degree of detail that they currently get. People just would refuse to provide it for fear of prosecution or persecution from other areas.

ROY MOYNIHAN: The Bureau of Air Safety Investigations is primarily interested in finding the reasons why accidents happen. It's the role of other organisations to lay blame and prosecute individuals or companies. Ansett's managing director doesn't want to see the bureau hand over confidential information to those other organisations.

GRAEME MCMAHON: Well, the probability in our view is that there would be a drying up of information, with people being very reticent to come forward to provide the data that BASI might need, and if that happened, whether it be in large scale or small scale, that would not be beneficial to obtaining the best results from the investigation.

ROY MOYNIHAN: And the implications for air safety in Australia?

GRAEME MCMAHON: Well, I think it could only be detrimental to that if BASI cannot conduct a complete and thorough investigation and get the right answers.

ROY MOYNIHAN: The storm of protest from the airline industry is shaping up as yet another crisis for the Civil Aviation Authority. Both the CAA and the Bureau of Air Safety Investigations chose not to talk to us today about their legal battle. The case comes up in the New South Wales Supreme Court in early January.

ELLEN FANNING: Ray Moynihan with that report.