The Guardian July 19, 2000


Dangerous skies

Serious concerns from the community and warnings from the 
Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU) about noise pollution 
and the danger of a major aircraft accident over Sydney have been pushed 
aside by Airservices Australia, the private airports authority on contract 
to the Federal Government.

Two connected issues have set the alarm bells ringing  Kingsford Smith 
Airport's air traffic control system and the trialling of the new Precision 
Radar Monitor (PRM).

At 6.22pm on the evening of July 6 a power blackout at the airport's 
operations centre caused air traffic controllers to lose contact for 10 
minutes with 20 planes circling in airspace above the airport and the 
surrounding densely populated suburbs.

The blackout itself lasted only a few seconds but a back-up  the 
Uninterruptable Power System  which is meant to supply the control tower 
computers, failed. As a result radar and communications remained shut down.

The CEPU says there is a strong likelihood that similar failures will 
happen again during the heavy air traffic period of the Olympics.

Airservices Australia has reduced the number of maintenance checks and cut 
maintenance staff, from 55 to 48 during the last 12 months, and its 
electrical crew from eight to seven. Airservices Australia is contracted by 
the Federal Government to administer airports, including radar and 
communications and fire control.

Management has told the workers it is targeting 14 more of their number 
before the Olympics in September.

"They have halved the amount of maintenance on this very system", said the 
CEPU's Dan Dwyer. "Airservices Australia officials have repeatedly told me 
that we were concentrating too much on safety.

"The possibility of this failure occurring during the Olympics is much 
greater because it'll be so busy. I wrote to the Civil Aviation Safety 
Authority two months ago warning them that staff numbers weren't adequate, 
but I've heard nothing."

Mr Dwyer said the system went in carrying high risks, the Sydney Control 
Tower having been accepted by management even though it had more than 100 
documented functional defects.

He said that wrong settings on the back-up system had not been tested 
because Airservices Australia did not want to shut down the airport, a 
necessity for doing the tests. Furthermore, there is no technical recovery 
plan for such failure and no rehearsal for such a recovery plan.

"Management is the direct cause of the outrage. It was their deliberate 
policy to not test the settings and they must live with the consequences", 
said Mr Dwyer.

The PRM system

The PRM system is designed to allow the coordination of an increased number 
of planes to land in bad weather. It began trials in Sydney on July 10.

Community group, the Sydney Airport Community Forum, points to the lack of 
adequate environmental assessments on the effect of noise pollution due to 
the increased air traffic.

At the moment pilots cannot land planes simultaneously on Kingsford Smith's 
parallel runways in bad weather with poor visibility, but under PRM they 
will be able to do so.

"They're conducting an experiment during the Olympics when we'll have the 
highest ever air traffic at the airport", says the Community Forum.

"Airservices Australia is only conducting five days of testing noise and 
heat levels before PRM is introduced. That's not enough."

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