What happened

At 1345 Central Standard Time on 2 October 2012, a loss of separation (LOS) occurred between a descending Boeing 717 aircraft, registered VH-NXQ (NXQ), operating a scheduled passenger service from Alice Springs to Darwin, Northern Territory, and a climbing Boeing 737, registered VH-VXM (VXM), operating a scheduled passenger service from Darwin to Melbourne, Victoria. The LOS occurred about 14 NM (26 km) south of Darwin, and the aircraft were under the jurisdiction of Department of Defence air traffic control (ATC) at the time of the occurrence.

Prior to the LOS, a predicted conflict alert was activated within the Australian Defence Air Traffic System (ADATS). After a short delay, the Approach controller instructed VXM’s flight crew to stop their climb at 9,000 ft. NXQ’s flight crew advised the controller of conflicting traffic below them and the controller instructed them to maintain 10,000 ft. Separation between the aircraft reduced to about 900 ft vertically as NXQ passed directly overhead VXM on a crossing track. The required separation standards were either 1,000 ft vertical separation or 3 NM (5.6 km) radar separation.

What the ATSB found

The ATSB determined that an already-assigned transponder code was allocated to the 717 in ADATS, which resulted in the 717’s call sign being incorrectly correlated in ADATS to an overflying aircraft that was in the general proximity of the 717. Manual processes to check the assigned transponder code with the code listed in ADATS were not conducted effectively. Due to local contextual factors and confirmation bias, the Darwin Approach controller and Approach Supervisor assumed that the radar return labelled as NXQ was correct, and they did not identify the error until after the conflict alert activated.

The ATSB identified safety issues relating to the Department of Defence’s (DoD’s) risk controls for ensuring transponder code changes were processed correctly, the expectancy in the Darwin approach environment about the relevance of radar returns with a limited data block, the risk assessment and review processes for the introduction of new equipment, and refresher training for compromised separation recovery actions.

What's been done as a result

The DoD issued a Safety Advisory to highlight to controllers the importance of the appropriate and timely actioning of all messages sent to the ADATS Problem Message Queue, for Planner controllers to confirm that correct transponder codes are allocated in the ADATS flight plan and to reinforce to controllers to take immediate action on all conflict alert and predicted conflict alert alarms. Following a September 2013 DoD review of the Comsoft Aeronautical Data Access System and its associated impact on the Planner role, Flight Data Operators have been introduced at a number of Defence air traffic control establishments to reduce workload in the Planner position.

The ATSB is not satisfied that the DoD has adequately addressed the safety issues regarding the provision of refresher training to air traffic controllers for the scanning of green radar returns and in compromised separation recovery requirements and techniques. As a result, the ATSB has made formal recommendations to the DoD to take further safety action on these issues.

Safety message

The ATSB reminds operational personnel such as controllers of the problems associated with confirmation bias when dealing with unusual situations and the importance of searching for anomalous indicators in such situations. The ATSB also reminds high-reliability organisations such as air traffic services providers that, even though they may have multiple levels of risk control in place to reduce safety risk, these controls need to be regularly evaluated to ensure that they are effective.