BY LIAM MITCHELL
As the Easter holiday break hit, Ansett Airlines was warned by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) that its license to operate could be cancelled due to continuing safety problems through missed maintenance schedules. Although the threat was later withdrawn and the issue whitewashed by the government and media, the crisis in airline safety has become more apparent.
Ansett was forced to ground seven Boeing 767-200 aeroplanes over the Christmas break after it was discovered that a 1997 maintenance order from the US manufacturer to inspect the tail section for cracks had not been carried out. This later grounding has meant that for the second major holiday period in a row, airline passengers had to endure cancellations and delays due to Ansett management's cutbacks.
Boeing issued a directive in March 2000 to check all 767s for cracks in wing pylons supporting the engines, recommending the inspections and repairs be done within 180 days. The directive was not mandatory, nor did CASA seek to make it mandatory.
Ansett only acted when the bulletin was "discovered", "sometime after Christmas". It contacted Boeing and was ordered to inspect its fleet by the end of April. The first plane inspected on April 7 had a crack several centimetres long. Four planes were found to have cracks in the susceptible pylon brackets.
These were the same planes — the oldest in Ansett's fleet — that were grounded over Christmas to check for cracks in their tails.
CASA initially allowed Ansett to fly the 767-200s until 10pm on April 12. It also gave the company three months to improve its maintenance practices and show why it should not have its license to operate cancelled.
On April 12, the day before the holiday break, it emerged that a 767 had made eight flights over three days with incorrectly fitted passenger emergency escape slides. More recently, it was revealed that a 767 kept flying with a faulty seal on a door lock unrepaired for several days after it was reported. It was then that CASA, supported by federal transport minister John Anderson, issued a directive to ground Ansett's entire fleet of 10 767s.
CASA also changed the deadline for the company to demonstrate an improvement in maintenance standards from three months to three weeks. CASA also started its own inspections of all 767s and spot checks on the rest of Ansett's fleet, as well as an audit of Ansett's maintenance. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau has also announced it will investigate maintenance at the airline.
Ansett then faced further embarrassment when CASA's first inspection was delayed by 24 hours because the company's management could not produce the full records of the plane's maintenance history.
Information on Ansett's maintenance schedule breaches was provided to CASA by whistleblowers inside Ansett's maintenance work force, who said they feared for passenger safety. They told CASA that management had a policy of waiting until the last minute for maintenance inspections and repairs.
As part of its own internal investigations, Ansett suspended four maintenance and engineering workers. However, sources within the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union have blamed the crisis on staff cuts and shortcuts on maintenance timetables, as well as airline self-regulation on safety and maintenance. The company's attitude, the union claims, has been to wait until something went wrong before fixing problems.
CASA and Ansett have blamed the crisis on internal management reorganisation. CASA has demanded a restructure of Ansett management.
"The whole culture of the airline aviation industry, which we subscribe to, is one of no blame, where you are actually rewarded, or you encourage people to raise issues of safety... That doesn't seem to be the rule that's being applied to us today", complained Ansett boss Gary Toomey.
However, the fact that CASA did not act before Christmas to force Ansett to carry out missed inspections while its fleet was grounded on another long overdue inspection shows that the government's system of aircraft maintenance and regulation does not work.
CASA received safety bulletins from the aircrafts' manufacturer, but did not check with Ansett as to whether inspection was carried out by the recommended time. CASA was not previously aware that Ansett had missed the two directives and has admitted that it does not monitor the response of airlines to the manufacturer's safety bulletins.
CASA chief Mick Toller even told a Senate estimates committee in February that it was not CASA's role to check airlines for compliance with the manufacturer's safety directives.
CASA has previously been criticised for being soft on major airlines and not adequately ensuring safety standards are met on smaller aircraft fleets. CASA even allows small aircraft to fly with unserviceable equipment, provided they have two pilots.
In 1991, a Dick Smith-led CASA adopted a policy of "affordable safety" as a way of lifting government regulation on airline safety. This was followed by crashes by Monarch and Seaview airlines in 1993 and 1994. During this period, one third of CASA staff were cut and the numbers of government air safety inspectors dropped from 350 in 1991 to 159 in 1996.
From being the industry regulator, CASA (and the Labor government of the time) allowed the industry to become self-regulating on safety issues.
Ansett, which posted a profit of $157 million in 1999, has also been cutting its work force. On December 15, 70 maintenance positions were cut, eight days before its seven planes were grounded for lack of maintenance. A CASA report also found, in March, that Ansett maintenance staff had not been properly trained to follow the manufacturer's instructions.
A leaked internal CASA report by its own audit branch dated March 26, 2001 — two weeks before the latest crisis — criticised CASA for failing to uphold safety laws. The report also accused Toller of misleading parliament on its monitoring of Ansett.
The report found there were no records for monitoring and auditing Ansett; that there were problems with staff training, audits and record keeping; that Ansett had been unaware for 18 months of problems which led to the Christmas groundings; that CASA could not be sure that similar oversights had not occurred for other planes and that CASA was failing in its checks.
"Australia's aviation safety regulator's surveillance of the industry has for too long been subject to management fads", the report stated. "The industry's level of compliance with safety legislation is no longer being actively measured by CASA."
Federal transport minister John Anderson, along with CASA management, has rejected the report, claiming a lack of "rigour, independence, of thought or objectivity". The report was sent back for reworking.
The latest problems with Ansett have now forced CASA's hand, but the target this time is one of the largest Australian corporations and is a tricky problem for the Howard Coalition government. To carry out its threat to cancel Ansett's operating license would mean that the government would have to de-register one of its largest corporate mates.
To avoid this, CASA stated that it would not issue the two-week notice to Ansett to show cause why its license should not be revoked if Ansett could provide CASA with a plan to reform its maintenance system and restructure its management by April 20. On that day, CASA stated that Ansett had a plan that met its conditions and the notice was not issued.
Toomey has not rule out legal action by Ansett against CASA over the grounding of its fleet.
The deregulation of airline safety and maintenance has led to less scrutiny by government bodies. If maintenance workers had not alerted CASA to the situation at Ansett, it would probably still have not carried out the necessary inspections and repairs.
CASA (and the government) may still let Ansett off the hook. Inspections subsequent to the initial plane inspected will only sample a number of areas of concern. CASA itself has faced staff cuts and may not have the resources to properly inspect each 767 grounded by its stated deadline.
Although Ansett has promised to do "whatever it takes" to meet CASA's demands for better maintenance and safety standards and Anderson has foreshadowed a possible increase in CASA funding in the next budget, little remains resolved by this crisis except that other airlines will still be able to put profit making before comprehensive safety standards.