Three passenger airliners came within seconds of disaster over Melbourne Airport in an incident that has sparked calls from independent Senator Nick Xenophon for an urgent inquiry into the “near miss”.
Footage of the “potential disaster” that was filmed by a passenger on one of the planes during the July 5, 2015 incident has emerged.
It was about 6pm when two Qantas planes – one from Sydney and the other from Canberra – were forced to abort their landings simultaneously after an Emirates plane heading for Singapore delayed its take-off.
Mr Xenophon said the two Qantas aircraft ended up 20 seconds from collision and less than one nautical mile apart – just a third of the mandated minimum separation.
One of the planes also ended up performing an evasive manoeuvre below the minimum altitude over the terminal.
Mr Xenophon said a string of failings by Australia’s air traffic controller, Airservices Australia, almost resulted in disaster and called for an urgent safety audit of the organisation.
The incident was being linked to a procedure known as Land and Hold Short Operations (LAHSO) which involved the use of intersecting runways.
“This was a near miss,” Mr Xenophon said. “Two aircraft nearly collided in air, because of a series of systemic failures.”
The incident was being investigated by the Air Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) which revealed the tower controller position was staffed by an On-the-Job Training Instructor (OJTI) and a trainee controller. It was the trainee’s fourth shift under training.
It found an air traffic co-ordinator was forced to intervene in the incident, telling the trainee and their instructor that the “scenario involving the three aircraft was not going to work”.
Mr Xenophon first raised the issue in Senate Estimates in 2015 after receiving information from air traffic controllers and pilots “deeply concerned” about the incident.
In correspondence between Mr Xenophon and Airservices Australia, the organisation claimed the aircraft maintained the required minimum distance from each other at all times.
But at a Senate hearing in August 2015, Airservices Australia official Greg Hood acknowledged it was a “serious incident” and “not something I like to see”.
How it unfolded
According to the ATSB’s ongoing report, two Qantas Boeing 737s were in the air preparing to land, while an Emirates Boeing 777 was on the runway about to take off.
It said the Emirates aircraft was cleared for take off and began its slow journey down the runway. As it gathered speed, a Qantas plane appears on the radar behind it, ready to land on the same runway. A second Qantas aircraft was seen approaching from the right.
The report stated that to avoid a collision, both Qantas pilots aborted their landings and did a ‘double go-around’ – and one aircraft was authorised to veer across the terminal at an unsafe altitude.
“[The footage] showed how close three aircraft at Melbourne Airport came to a potential disaster where a rare and potentially dangerous ‘double go-around’ occurred,” Mr Xenophon said.
“A ‘go-around’ occurs when a plane which is about to land has to abort it’s landing for safety reasons. A ‘double go-around’ involves two aircraft aborting landings simultaneously with an exponentially increased safety risk.
“The incident is compounded because Australia is one of the few countries in the world that allows Land and Hold Short Operations (LAHSO), where intersecting runways can be operated simultaneously.”
Mr Xenophon said it was a practice that was banned in almost all countries except the US and Canada.
World’s best practice was to use parallel runways, which involved more capital expense for airport operators, he said.
Leaked footage that emerged on Sunday night of the ‘potential disaster’ filmed on a smartphone by a passenger, showed the lights of a second plane approaching close near the left side of a Qantas aircraft, before going out of view under the wing.
When the first plane eventually landed, the first officer was heard over the loudspeaker apologising, and said that controllers on the ground had given another aircraft clearance to take off but “the pilots of that aircraft didn’t proceed with their take-off when they should have and consequently that was going to put us into an unhelpful position”.
Airport workers ‘concerned’
Mr Xenophon said a number of air traffic controllers had told him they were concerned about staffing levels – particularly with LAHSO operations – and pilots had expressed similar concerns over LAHSO being allowed in Australia.
“When it comes to safety there must be no scrimping of staff, and we should be adopting world’s best practice,” he said.
In a letter to Mr Xenophon, the Civil Aviation and Safety Authority (CASA) said the ‘double go-around’ manoeuvre was assessed as ‘one-in-175-year event’.
But two such events had occurred in the past five years, he said.
“It seems there is something seriously wrong with this so-called risk assessment modelling when it comes to aircraft hurtling along at 800km/h the margin for error just isn’t there,” he said.
The ATSB’s ongoing investigation stated all nighttime LAHSO operations were suspended at Melbourne and Adelaide Airport from November 10, 2015 – more than four months after the incident.
ASA and CASA will be further questioned during the Senate Estimate hearings on Monday.