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Ramifications of the ‘near-miss’ at Tullamarine airport

The investigation of the incident on 5 July last year where two QANTAS Boeing 737 aircraft (being QF 449 and QF 819) were forced to abort and abandon their landings after an Emirates aircraft (being UAE 405) was late in performing its take-off, has sparked debate into the administration of air traffic at Australian airports, the layout and planning of airport runways, and the role of Airservices Australia in managing air traffic in Australia.

In terms of the administration of air traffic at Australian airports, the debate has again emphasis the crucial role that air traffic controllers play in maintaining, avoiding aircraft accidents and organising the orderly and safe take-offs and landings at airports.

However, the fact remains that managing air traffic is inherently dangerous and the incident on 5 July calls into question whether air traffic controllers are receiving adequate assistance, and additional staff to manage air traffic.

On present indications, there are around 1,000 air traffic controllers in Australia, and with air traffic hitting similar levels to the same volume as at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

In the long term, this is clearly inadequate to safely manage increasing air traffic where existing airport infrastructure has not been expanded. For instance, Sydney still does not have a second airport due to a decision being forestalled for several decades.

The second issue is the layout and planning of airport runways in Australia. For instance, Tullamarine airport, Adelaide airport and Darwin airport (in respect of Defence traffic) use a type of runway called an ‘intersecting runway’.

An intersecting runway is where an airport uses two runways that ‘run through one and another’ to allow simultaneous landings or take-offs, this has the benefit of minimising the approach track and taxi routes of aircraft and maximising flight efficiency.

However, it also increases the risk of collision and runway incursions between aircraft and places further stress on stretched air traffic controllers to ‘work around’ the flaws of an intersecting runway.

A far better option would be to use a series of runways in a single direction which can be used in mixed mode to allow both landings and take-offs, and would reduce the risks associated with collision and runway incursions.

However, due to strict planning laws, the needs of local residents and budget constraints this is likely to be very problematic to implement.

The best strategy when planning and building future airports is to reserve a large expanse of land close to a future airport to allow future runways to be built, and to resist the temptation to use this space for commercial but non-aviation related uses such as an expanded terminal with more shops, restaurants, cafes etc.

An airport authority will need to balance commerciality with utility to achieve this.

The third issue concerns the oversight and authority of Airservices Australia. Airservices Australia is an Australian Commonwealth government owned corporation responsible for providing aviation services to the aviation industry in terms of air traffic control, aeronautical information, airways navigation etc.

Senator Nick Xenophon has remarked that Airservices Australia has provided statistics that do not correctly show the risks of runway incursions.

Specifically, Airservices Australia produced statistics stating that the risk of a runway incursion has an extremely low probability of 1 in 175 years at Tullamarine airport, however, Senator Xenophon notes that there have been 2 reported runway incursions in the last 5 years at the same airport.

This may show that there has been an error in data collection and analysis in respect of airport incidents.

In conclusion, the fact remains that as air traffic to Tullamarine airport and to Australian airports more generally, increases.

There will have to be a radical re-think of the value in which the aviation industry and the Australian government places on air traffic controllers and aeronautical staff generally.

This will hopefully lead to increased staff numbers, a lower turnover of staff, a working environment that recognises the inherent stress of the role and more attractive working conditions.

Written by Shine Lawyers. Last modified: February 9, 2016.

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