The reporter raised a safety concern regarding an airspace safety risk at and around Ballina/Byron Gateway aerodrome, due to the volume of traffic and frequency congestion. The reporter advises that the mix of traffic at Ballina is complex, including a high number of general aviation aircraft, microlight aircraft, helicopter operations and Regular Public Transport (RPT) jets, as well as an increase in training aircraft in recent years.
A Certified Air Ground Radio Service (CA/GRS) was introduced at Ballina in 2016 following a supplementary airspace review in 2015; however, the reporter states that the CA/GRS has not decreased the airspace risk level nor has it alleviated the CTAF congestion. The reporter states that the CA/GRS at times increase the frequency congestion.
The reporter states that communication related incidents and separation issues are becoming more frequent and is concerned a mid-air collision is imminent, with the risk of high capacity aircraft being involved, not unforeseeable, unless an enhanced air traffic service is implemented.
Operator's response (Operator 1)
The aerodrome manager agreed that there is a mix of traffic at Ballina, including general aviation aircraft, microlight aircraft, helicopter operations and RPT jets, as well as an increase during recent years in training aircraft, both rotary and fixed wing. Ballina has a new fixed wing training provider that commenced operation in the past two years and the availability of NDB/RNAV approaches attracts training aircraft, including RPT and military, in addition to private and commercial operators. These combine to make Ballina airspace and communication frequencies very congested.
The manager believes the CA/GRS has improved the airspace risk level and that the number of incidents, in the form of separation issues is low. Frequency congestion does, however, continue to be an issue at busy periods with the CA/GRS / CTAF covering five airspace regions - where the majority of traffic in these areas is private VFR. . Complaints have been registered with airport operations that the CA/GRS contributes to frequency congestion and this has been brought to the attention of the CA/GRS operator (CA/GRO) in question.
The Ballina CTAF area does experience a number of (VFR) aircraft that fail to report their position, including when required to, within the new Broadcast Area.
We have not observed a marked increase in communication and separation issues, however, we acknowledge the requirement for RPT/IFR aircraft to maintain visual contact with traffic, significantly increases the flight-deck workload on approach into Ballina. Certainly an enhanced air traffic service would minimise the risk of an incident - especially with the airport's plans for carrier and destination expansion.
Operator's response (Operator 2)
The OAR stated Frequency issues occur between aircraft at Lismore and Ballina. Airservices
Australia are investigating options to address the issue. This refers to an action item from the
Ballina Industry Meeting on 28 August 2019. The action was for Airservices to investigate the feasibility of a VHF retransmitter between Lismore and Ballina.
We have completed a review and found no implementation of a VHF repeater service in the aviation context within Australia. For this to be achieved a first-of-type system would need to be designed and risk assessed. As the identified communication issues surrounding Ballina involve frequencies on which we do not provide a service, the aerodromes could investigate the suitability of a single-frequency repeater independently of Airservices Australia.
In Aeronautical Information Package (AIP) Supplement H140/19 Effective 5 December 2019, OAR state that the CTAF at Ballina, Lismore, Casino and Evans Head will remain unchanged. OAR have not approached Airservices to request a different frequency to be allocated.
Regulator's response (Regulator 1)
The Office of Airspace Regulation (OAR) regularly monitors the incidents and traffic levels at Ballina.
- In the 12 month period (1 December 2018 – 30 November 2019) there was one (1) communication related incident and two (2) other airspace related incidents in the vicinity of the aerodrome.
- The number of incidents have decreased from the five incidents which occurred during the previous 12 month period.
- In two of the three recent incidents (1 December 2018 – 30 November 2019), the CA/GRS provided a service to enhance situational awareness of the inbound RPT aircraft.
At a recent Aviation Safety Seminar held at Ballina, local stakeholders were asked about the service provided by the CA/GRS. All agreed that the service is a benefit and it is working well.
Frequency issues occur between aircraft at Lismore and Ballina. Airservices Australia are investigating options to address the issue.
ATSB sought clarification from the regulator following the Airservices response, the regulator’s comments below:
The OAR has not approached Airservices for a discrete frequency for Ballina as a different frequency will not solve the underlying issues. The instrument approaches for Ballina and Lismore overlap and having both aerodromes on the same frequency enhances situational awareness. It is not appropriate for aircraft to operate in close proximity to each other and be on different radio frequencies.
The main issue at Ballina relates to radio communication – aircraft not broadcasting on the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF), over-transmissions, poor radio calls and congestion caused by aircraft at Lismore.
In December 2019, the Office of Airspace Regulation (OAR) declared a broadcast area within 10 nautical miles of Ballina aerodrome to reduce the risk related to pilot communication in the area.
The OAR monitors the traffic and incidents at Ballina aerodrome on a monthly basis. A significant change in traffic volume, mix, incidents or stakeholder feedback may trigger an airspace review by the OAR.
The ATSB has received significant feedback from several GA operators regarding airspace concerns at and around Ballina.
While the ATSB occurrence database supports the regulator’s statement that one of the underlying issues at Ballina is aircraft not broadcasting on the CTAF, the ATSB notes that communication (air-ground-air) issues are not a mandatory reportable matter under the Transport Safety Investigation Act, 2003 for non-air transport aircraft. As such, flight crews who encounter communication issues do not necessarily report them to the ATSB.
Feedback from multiple operators that regularly operate on the CTAF suggest that aircraft not broadcasting on the CTAF is usually due to the inability to make a transmission due to frequency congestion, often due to the CA/GRS.
Multiple operators have also indicated to the ATSB that while communication issues due to over use of the radio is prevalent, there is no mechanism to provide this feedback. The operators state that the Aviation Safety Seminars are not appropriate forums, due to them being facilitated by the aerodrome operator, who hold their leases; the presence of the CA/GRO’s; and no formal recording of specific concerns being raised.
Due to the volume of feedback the ATSB has received on this specific issue, the ATSB has asked CASA to consider establishing a mechanism for GA operators to provide CASA their generic concerns and/or details regarding specific incidents.
As at time of publishing, Airservices is planning on introducing enhanced traffic services, in Class G airspace, through the provision of the Surveillance Flight Information Service (SFIS) at selected regional non-towered aerodromes across Australia, including Ballina/Byron Gateway aerodrome. More information can be found at:
Surveillance Flight Information Service | Engage Airservices (airservicesaustralia.com)