01 June 2017
Subject: Malaysia Airlines incident in Melbourne
Neil Mitchell: On the line is the Federal Minister in charge of Aviation Safety and Security, Mr Darren Chester, in our Canberra studio. Good morning.
Darren Chester: Good morning, Neil.
Neil Mitchell: Okay, it seems not to have gone well.
Darren Chester: Well I think we should be waiting for the dust to settle a bit, Neil, and I understand you have got first reports from passengers on board raising concerns. But in a situation like this where we have had a passenger apparently seek to gain access to the cockpit, he was subdued—I'm not sure of the full details of how many people were involved in bringing that under control and the plane returned safely to Tullamarine. So I'm looking to the positive side in the sense that this was a worrying incident but all on board have returned safely to Tullamarine, which is a good outcome.
Now, in terms of what happened, exactly what happened, what happened then in terms of response on the ground from the security agencies, they will all be subject to a review to assess: are there things we could do better in the future? I understand that the tone of your conversation this morning with some of your listeners about what can we do better? And that's a constant process in terms of assessing the risk for the travelling public and making sure we keep people as safe as we possibly can.
Neil Mitchell: Okay, the three areas for concern I see: one, security. The device shouldn't have got through security, should it?
Darren Chester: Well, Neil, the early advice I have received is that the security screening arrangements that are in place at Tullamarine and in place at all our major airports which require luggage and passengers, 100 per cent of them, to be screened was operating at the time.
Neil Mitchell: But that is an even bigger problem though. If this device gets through and it gets through a system that is operating, then you're…
Darren Chester: But Neil, as you and I are having this conversation, I haven't seen the device or received a report on what the device actually was, and that is why I need to wait to see exactly what we are talking in terms of that piece of equipment.
Neil Mitchell: Fair enough, but what has been described by one of the people on board as being the size of a watermelon with wires coming out of it.
Darren Chester: Yes, well, Neil, from my experience and my background—I used to be a newspaper journalist—and from my background the early reports that I have received from incidents haven't always stacked up to what actually occurred when I get to the court and find out the details…
Neil Mitchell: Yeah, I'm not that inexperienced journalist, myself…
Darren Chester: No, I wasn't having a go at you, I…
Neil Mitchell: No, no, no, I know. But a lot of people—look a device has got through that is good enough to fool people into thinking it's a bomb. It shouldn't get through the system, should it?
Darren Chester: Well, in the context of what we are screening for we need to actually find out what this device is before we go any further. I don't want to talk on security protocols too much other than the fact that my early reports are that the screening equipment was working, that the passengers on board were screened, luggage was screened. As it appears, the plane has returned safely, the police' early comments indicate that this was not terrorism related, that it appears to be mental health related, and those are other issues there and we need to discuss them.
Neil Mitchell: And that does lead me to another issue. The police say the man who is in custody was known to them for his mental health issues, which means he has caused problems for police—either violent or erratic behaviour. Is there any system whereby people whose mental health issues are bad enough to be dealing with police some of them can be red flagged for air travel?
Darren Chester: Well you may be aware that this week the Foreign Affairs Minister and Minister for Justice announced plans to put travel bans in place for people who had been on the sexual offenders register in our bid to protect young children from sex exploitation, particularly in Asia. So you can suggest there is a precedent there in terms of protecting the public from unsavoury characters who seek to travel. Now, there's a broader conversation that we can have, but I don't know that just a few hours after an incident like this is the right time to get too…
Neil Mitchell: No, I agree, I agree. But the point I'm getting to: is that the sort of thing we could examine? I mean, I know it would be a breach of privacy, I know there will be all sorts of problems with it; but if you have behaved in a sufficiently erratic fashion to be involving the police, there should be some questions asked about it before you get on an aircraft.
Darren Chester: The concern I would have, Neil, and I'm getting into the territory of speculating well before I know all the details. But the concern I would have is then we are then labelling people with mental health issues as them being people who aren't fit to travel…
Neil Mitchell: Oh no, no, I'm talking about people who have had sufficient problems with mental health that the police have had to subdue them.
Darren Chester: Well I think these are conversations that I think are best left to when we have the full details in front of us. I am reluctant…
Neil Mitchell: Fair enough. I understand.
Darren Chester: to get into a conversation where we label all people with mental health issues as being problem travellers.
Neil Mitchell: Well no, I'm not doing that…
Darren Chester: No, I'm not saying you are. But I think if I start speculating on that we go down a path where I need a bit more information.
Neil Mitchell: And look the third area of concern is the delay: one passenger said 80 or 90 minutes—the police won't say. The plane's sitting on the ground having returned with the passenger subdued and they are sitting on the ground for at least an hour, possibly 80 or 90 minutes, thinking they have got a bomb on board. Now that has to be of concern, doesn't it?
Darren Chester: Well, as you would appreciate and I'm sure the passengers on board would understand, the number one priority has to be the safety of the passengers and crew and those responding. Now, if it was an incident where information was still evolving, it would have been difficult for the police on the ground to get the full facts in the time frame. So this is why we undertake a review of these issues, to find out what actually transpired, what did the passenger actually do, what led to him doing that, how was it resolved and then, when the aircraft landed, did we respond appropriately with our police and security agencies? Now, they are all things that will inform future decisions and inform security protocols that may be required into the future.
Neil Mitchell: Okay, so who will conduct that review?
Darren Chester: The Office of Transport Security, which I am responsible for will obviously be looking through the security arrangements in terms of screening and that type of thing. The police, I would imagine, as a matter of course of regular business, will then reassess how everything worked in response to this incident. You know, obviously it was worrying for passengers and crew and it would have been when the call first came through to our security and police I'm sure they would have been alert not alarmed as you would expect. So we are very fortunate. We do have world class security and police…
Neil Mitchell: Well we do, I'm really questioning the way it has operated this time. But as you say, that needs to be investigated. Do we still have an air marshal program, by the way?
Darren Chester: There are protocols in place which I don't want to go into all the details, but there are protocols in place on the ground and in the air which aren't necessarily made public but there certainly are some plain clothes detection activities which occur at our airports and in the air, and I think they are well known. There are protocols in place in terms of protecting the cockpit from attack and all those sorts of things that people are perhaps well aware of.
The bottom line is, Neil, I am particularly thankful to know that the passengers and crew returned to ground safely. And now we need to learn from the incident: are there things we can do better in the future? If we can learn from it, we will.
Neil Mitchell: Thank you very much. Darren Chester, the Federal Minister in charge of Aviation Safety and Security.