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National airspace system causes safety concerns; security measures for over 180 airports to be partly funded by Ansett levy.

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Thursday 4 December 2003

National airspace system causes safety concerns; security measures for over 180 airports to be partly funded by Ansett levy


MARK COLVIN: Do air tr avellers have reason to fear for their lives under Australia's new air safety regime? It seems to come down to whether you believe the Government and its bureaucrats on one side or the Air Traffic Controllers and the pilots on the other. 


Investigations are continuing into yesterday's incident near Melbourne airport, when a Virgin 737 jet apparently came within seconds of colliding with two smaller aircraft. As Transport Minister John Anderson played down the danger as a union beat-up, the Government attempted to shift the spotlight away from safety and on to the fight against terrorism. 


Under the Government's new air security program, there'll now be screening at all passenger airports, closing the loophole that allowed people to get on to planes unscreened at regional airfields. Airports handling freight and charter flights will also be covered. 


Ben Knight reports. 


BEN KNIGHT: The new security package will cover around 180 Australian airports and will be partly funded by money left over from the Ansett ticket levy.  


According to the Transport Minister John Anderson, they're changes the public will be able to see, with more people on the ground at Australian airports, especially in the regions, many of which don't have so much as a metal detector in place.  


But the money will also be spent on specific measures to improve aircraft security on the aircraft themselves. 


JOHN ANDERSON: We will meet the total cost of installing hardened cockpit doors for all aircraft with more than 30 seats. There will be greater compliance monitoring and enforcement of air freight security and new freight screening technology will be trialed by the customs service and by the CSIRO. 


All staff at airport servicing passenger and freight aircraft will undergo background checking, be issued with ASIC cards, security identification cards, to ensure the integrity of restricted areas of airports. 


BEN KNIGHT: The response from unions has been good, but while it's relieved the pressure from the Government over airport security, they're still being hammered over airline safety. 


Yesterday, the union representing air traffic controllers said the Government's new national airspace system, introduced just a week ago, caused a Virgin passenger jet to come within 20 seconds of colliding with two smaller aircraft near Melbourne airport, after they strayed into its airspace.  


There are now several investigations into the incident and today, Virgin Blue Chief Executive Brett Godfrey said the airline would also be conducting an inquiry. But he says he doubts the claim that the aircraft were 20 seconds away from crashing. 


BRETT GODFREY: No, they were both heading in a similar direction as I understand. They were both inbound into Melbourne, which puts some view as to whether or not they'd actually be within 20 seconds of each other as reported yesterday. I don't think, I'm not sure that that can be verified, I don't think there's any evidence to support that at this time. 


BEN KNIGHT: That's something John Anderson will be happy to hear. Today, he let fly at the Air Traffic Controllers' Association, saying they're overstating the danger. 


JOHN ANDERSON: It's a terrific system, should have done it years ago and, you know, you haven't heard Qantas or Virgin or REX, you haven't heard the RAAF, you haven't heard CASA, you haven't heard Air Services, you haven't heard pilots who have flown in America say anything other than this is the broad direction in which we should go. 


BEN KNIGHT: Well, the airlines might not be saying anything, but increasingly, their pilots are. Today, Victorian ABC regional radio presenter Kathy Bedford took a call from an Albury based pilot with the country airline, REX. 


PILOT: There are many occasions where we're descending into Albury from Sydney and we'll be coming in, in our aircraft at say, in miles per hour, probably about 280 miles per hour on descent, and the guys in the tower might say traffic here is a Cessna in the 2 o'clock position five miles in front and we'll have two sets of professional eyes in the Saab looking out for that traffic and as often as not, we'll go past it without ever even seeing it. 


KATHY BEDFORD: You don't have 360 vision no matter which way you look at it. 


PILOT: Not only that, but as many second world war fighter pilots will tell you, seeing another aircraft in the air is very, very difficult, so when you've got guys that are flying these aeroplanes five or six days a week and have been doing it for 30-odd years, if we can't see aircraft, it's a bit much to expect the private pilot who does a few flights a year to be able to see us coming in. 


BEN KNIGHT: Qantas has issued a statement saying it accepts CASA's endorsement of the system's safety. But today, Virgin Blue's Brett Godfrey avoided giving a direct endorsement of the new rules. 


REPORTER: Is Virgin happy with the new system of air traffic control? 


BRETT GODFREY: It's too early to tell in that sense. All I'm saying is we believe that Australia has the safest skies in the world bar none, and I believe that very strongly and all I can say is today there is several investigations going on, one of which is ours and once it's concluded we'll be more than happy to find out ourselves as what did transpire yesterday. But we are convinced and satisfied that our blokes did a great job. 


MARK COLVIN: Brett Godfrey of Virgin Blue, ending Ben Knight's report.