Why the ATSB is doing this research
One of the main objectives of air traffic services (ATS) is to prevent the collision of aircraft. Aircraft separation standards are set to ensure that the chance of a mid-air collision is very remote. When they are infringed, there are fewer defences left to guard against a mid-air collision. This ATSB research investigation looks at loss of separation (LOS) incidents in Australian airspace to understand how often they occur and in what contexts, how and why they are occurring, and whether there are any wider implications that the air traffic system is not functioning appropriately.
What the ATSB found
Although there had been an increase in the number of occurrences reported to the ATSB over the 2 years ending in June 2012, there were fewer LOS occurrences during that period than during 2005 to 2008. Traffic levels have generally increased during the same period. A LOS between aircraft under air traffic control jurisdiction happens on average about once every 3 days. In almost 90 per cent of LOS occurrences, there was no or minimal risk of aircraft colliding. On average, however, there are six occurrences per year where an elevated risk of collision exists. There have been no mid-air collisions in Australia between two aircraft under ATS control.
The investigation found that military controlled terminal area airspace in general, and all airspace around Darwin and Williamtown in particular, had a disproportionate rate of LOS (for civilian aircraft). Most of these LOS occurrences were contributed to by air traffic controller actions. This may be a result of the nature of aircraft operations and airspace constraints at some military airports, leading to reduced use and effectiveness of strategic separation defences, thereby placing more responsibility for separating aircraft directly onto the controllers. Furthermore, as military ATS are not subject to safety oversight by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), there is no independent assessment and assurance as to the safety of civilian aircraft operations at military airports.
In civil airspace, LOS occurrences attributable to pilot actions are not monitored as a measure of airspace safety nor actively investigated for insight into possible improvements to air traffic service provision. As about half of all LOS incidents are from pilot actions, not all available information is being fully used to assure the safety of civilian airspace.
What's been done as a result
The ATSB has issued recommendations to the Department of Defence to review all processes and controls in place for aircraft separation in military ATS and to CASA to review whether its current level of involvement with military ATS is sufficient to assure the safety of civil aircraft operations. The ATSB also recommends using all available information, including pilot attributable LOS occurrences, to assure the safety of civilian airspace, and will itself investigate all serious LOS incidents.
Aircraft separation is a complex operation with many levels of defences to avoid errors and to safely manage the results of the errors that will inevitably be made from time to time by air traffic controllers and pilots. The defences ensure that even if a LOS does occur, the chance of an aircraft collision is still very remote. Safety could be enhanced through understanding and addressing the reasons for the disproportionate rate of LOS occurrences involving civil aircraft in military airspace, and through the ongoing monitoring and investigation of all LOS incidents in civil airspace.