The Australian Transport Safety Bureau says there are three key words that airport personnel need to remember if tragedy strikes their facility: respond, report, preserve.
ATSB chief commissioner Greg Hood says it is imperative that first responders and airport operators preserve a crash site before investigators arrive, and this means disturbing aircraft wreckage and ground scars as little as possible.
It is also important that they report it as soon as possible and contact the ATSB for advice even as investigators head to the scene.
How to do that is contained in a new publication from the bureau outlining the responsibility of airport operators when an incident or accident strikes.
The booklet contains information on a range of issues from what to do immediately following an accident to dealing with the media.
It includes the definition of an accident, gives a checklist of what information to collect and how to preserve the scene.
Information and guidance for aerodrome operators is the first publication of its kind that the ATSB has put out for airports and mirrors a similar publication for police and emergency service workers.
It’s recommended reading for everyone in the sector, with Hood urging operators and their personnel to make themselves familiar with it at its launch on 14 October to mark the start of Airport Safety Week.
“Read it now,” he said. “Don’t wait until you’ve had an accident. And spread it around as much as you can.”
The figures are sobering: in the decade to October 2019, the bureau recorded more than 25,000 incidents, serious incidents and accidents within one kilometre of Australia’s 31 towered civil and military airports.
Of these, the ATSB has or is currently investigating 262 serious incidents and accidents.
Hood said the good news was that the majority of airports Australia-wide had a good understanding of the ATSB, and the relationship had been good during his tenure.
“But we participated in an aerodrome procedures exercise in Sydney about 18 months ago and it became evident there’s a large turnover of personnel at some airports,” he said.
“So not everybody has a good understanding of the ATSB, what our role is and the importance to us of reporting.
“Then of course there’s the importance to us of the preservation of evidence.
“So we felt it was probably time to have a good look at doing a brochure like we’ve produced to clarify the role of the ATSB, the fact that we’re a no-blame investigator nationally and that it’s very important that your report incidents to us under the Transport Safety Investigation (TSI) regs.”
Hood said reporting was essential whether an incident was routinely reportable or serious enough to be reported immediately. This was so investigators could make a decision about what had happened and what to do next.
He pointed to the accident at Melbourne’s Essendon Fields airport in 2017 involving a Beechcraft 200B King Air that crashed in a shopping precinct.
He said this was a prime example where police, emergency services and the airport had understood the bureau’s role.
All the evidence was preserved, even though the crash was in the DFO precinct, when the site was handed over to investigators by police.
The ATSB chief also noted the bureau was cognizant that crashes had an impact on airport operations.
While the aim was always to conduct a thorough and meticulous investigation, he indicated there could still be room to accommodate requests and there was a section of the Act that required it to take note of airport operations.
The ATSB was not there to hinder people’s business, he said.
He said a wheels-up landing in Mackay had resulted in a call from the then chief executive reporting the incident.
While the CEO recognised the need to report and preserve evidence, he was keen to move the damaged aircraft as soon as possible.
The bureau was able to use a section which said investigators have to take into account the impact on airport operations.
“Waiting for investigators to arrive from Brisbane in that particular case was too big a stretch,” he said. “So what we asked the airport to do was to help us preserve the evidence by taking as many photographs as they could.”
Once that was done, the airport was able to use a crane to lift aircraft off the runway.
The ATSB is a relatively small organisation, with just 110 people across Australia and a high investigation workload, and Hood said the pamphlet was seen as an efficient way of addressing the concerns about personnel turnover.
“We obviously have limited budget to personally get out and educate everybody, so we thought this was a reasonable way of sharing the knowledge,” he said, adding that the ATSB personnel was still available to help airports with emergency exercises and planning.
It was equally important for media teams at airports to be familiar with the ATSB and its role.
“My communications manager and senior media adviser, where possible, are getting out and meeting with the media teams of airports, educating them on who we are, what we do and how we would manage the media in the event of an accident,” Hood said.
“This is proving to be beneficial for both sides.
“While this engagement activity is done usually when other opportunities arise, if you are in the media team at your airport, I would encourage you to contact our media team for a chat, and if you are in Canberra, then stop past our head office for a coffee and meet them.”
The pamphlet can be downloaded from the ATSB’s website, or printed copies can be ordered by emailing email@example.com.
By Steve Creedy
About Steve Creedy
An award-winning journalist, Steve began covering aviation in the United States in the early nineties before returning to Australia later that decade and editing The Australian’s aviation section for 17 years. He is editor of Airline Ratings and has co-authored books on industry initiatives aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions.
Steve has joined the AAA to write interesting and informative editorial on the aviation industry.