Transcript: Oceanic Tracking Trail Press Conference, Blue Room, Parliament House

Interview

WTC002/2015

01 March 2015

Topics: Oceanic Tracking Trial, MH 370, Liberal leadership, Coalition Agreement, NSW state election, Medicare Co-payment

Warren Truss: I'm joined on the dais by Sir Angus Houston, the Chairman of Airservices Australia, and Margaret Staib is here as well, who's the CEO of Airservices Australia, and a number of other Airservices officials, who will be able to deal with technical questions if you wish to ask them later on.

In addition, there is a short video, just less than a minute, that we will show you which I think describe in a more graphic way what we are talking about today.

Can I welcome you to this conference today for what is effectively another world-leading announcement in relation to air traffic control. As you will all be aware, it is almost a year since Malaysian Airlines MH370 vanished. This tragedy has prompted global attention on aircraft tracking; and in Australia, in co-operation with Malaysia and Indonesia, we have been considering what we might be able to do by way of a regional response. Today I'm announcing that Australian air traffic control management, Airservices Australia, along with their counterparts in Malaysia and Indonesia, will take a leadership initiative in global efforts to enhance aircraft flight tracking.

In a world first, all three countries will trial a new method of tracking aircraft through the skies over remote oceanic areas. While airlines flying over continental Australia are already tracked in real-time by radar or continuous-position monitoring, the new minimum tracking interval for remote oceanic areas will be 15 minutes; this improves on the previous tracking rate of 30 to 40 minutes. Further, the new approach that we will trial can increase real-time monitoring should an abnormal situation arise. This trial will initially be undertaken through the Brisbane air traffic services centre, but if it's successful, and we are sure it will be, it will then extend to Melbourne and our counterparts in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Now, this initiative adapts existing technology used by more than 90 per cent of long-haul passenger aircraft, and would see air traffic control able to respond more rapidly should an aircraft experience difficulty or an unexpected deviation from its flight plan. Airservices Australia has worked closely with Qantas, Virginia Australia, and global satellite provider Inmarsat, to successfully develop the operational concepts and a trial for the new use of surveillance technology. Now this has been done using selected aircraft domestically since the beginning of February, and I want to thank the major airlines for their co-operation in this trial and their support for this leading and collaborative work.

There is an international development, led by ICAO, towards more regular monitoring of aircraft, particularly when travelling over vast oceanic distances. A comprehensive flight tracking system will enable an early identification of any irregularity, and ensure there is a better positional awareness of the position of aircraft flying around the continent. What we are doing is in keeping with some of the ideas that ICAO, the international organisation, is currently discussing, and hopefully our trial will help to lead to a global adoption of these more regular reporting arrangements.

I also want to recognise the co-operation from our Malaysian and Indonesian counterparts, and for their willingness also to be engaged in this trial. Australia has air traffic management responsibilities for 11 per cent of the globe. A lot of that is ocean. And so we have a particular interest in being able to track effectively and reliably the aircraft moving in our region.

Finally, I would like to thank Sir Angus and the members of the Airservices Australia team for their work, and co-operation, and initiative in bringing this trial to fruition. I think that it does offer a significant step forward in assuring the public about the safety of international air travel, especially over long oceanic routes. And it gives us the opportunity to reassert that global aviation is a very, very safe way of travelling, but regulators are always looking for new ways to make it even safer.

Sir Angus, can I invite you now to make a couple of comments, and perhaps particularly in relation to the technical aspects of this, and then we will invite some questions.

Sir Angus Houston: Thank you Prime- Deputy Prime Minister. Well I would start by saying all of us have been very saddened by the loss of life with aviation accidents in recent time, and I think the MH370 circumstances is something that have touched us all in a very personal way.

As the Deputy Prime Minister announced, we will be undertaking a trial of improved tracking of aircraft, as recommended by the International Civil Aviation Organisation. I might add, their recommendation is that each aircraft should be reporting every 15 minutes, so this is very consistent with where they want the world long-haul airlines to go. It's also important to recognise this is not a silver bullet; but it is an important step in delivering immediate improvements to the way we currently track aircraft, while more comprehensive solutions are developed.

I'm very pleased that Airservices is at the forefront of delivering changes in this important area. This trial will now track aircraft, as I have already said, once every 15 minutes through existing technology fitted to 90 per cent of long haul aircraft. Now that's wide-bodied aircraft, from 747–400 forward; so it includes 380s, 777s, 330s, 340s, 350s, the wide-bodied aircraft that do the long-haul work. The equipment that they carry, which enables them to be part of this, is what is called FANS or future air navigation systems. And fundamentally it's a package of navigation and communications systems that enables them to meet all of the requirements of this new tracking initiative.

The technology we are using is automatic dependent surveillance contract, or ADSC. I might add at this point, that is completely different from ADSB, which is a completely discrete and different system. And ADSC transmits the aircraft's current position and the next two planned positions, and at the moment aircraft are currently reporting this information only every 30 to 40 minutes. The increase in frequency in which aircraft will automatically report this information allows air traffic controllers to track the aircraft position, and its predicted next position, with much greater accuracy.

This increased contract will ensure that air traffic control has more accurate and timely information about flights in oceanic areas, where we are unable to track aircraft using traditional radar that relies on ground-based sites. This information will also allow controllers to observe and react to any unusual behaviour. Now, what that means in terms of the benchmarks for that, if the aircraft deviates more than plus or minus 200 feet from its assigned level, or it ends up plus or minus two nautical miles from its expected track, we will then- the system will automatically start looking at it on a more regular basis—maybe every five minutes, or if there is real concern look at it almost continuously.

So this is a big step forward. It's not just changing things, it's going to make, I think, the monitoring of aircraft over these oceanic areas much more effective. And as a consequence of that, if there were to be some sort of a problem, we are going to have a much better idea of where to start the search and rescue operation. In other words, we will have a datum very close to where the aircraft ran into trouble, which of course is in marked contrast to MH370, where the last known position was in the Malacca Straits.

OK, I guess…I won't say any more other than I'm delighted that our colleagues in Indonesia and Malaysia will work with us to trial the concept in our region. Airservices has gone to the service providers in both countries. They are very excited about it, they have agreed in principle, but once we are ready—probably in about two weeks' time—we will then go and talk to them as to how we extend the trial to them. And I think that's going to be great for all of us.

And I would just like to acknowledge the great work of Airservices in delivering this trial. Obviously we are also indebted to Qantas, Virginia, and Inmarsat, without who this trial wouldn't have been possible.

[Plays video]

Warren Truss: Right, any questions?

Question: You've indicated that you went for the 15 minute interval because that's ICAO recommendation, but if the equipment is fully automated, what's the argument for not going continuous, real time and constant?

Warren Truss: Well, I think one of the key issues is the cost. There is a cost associated with each connection and obviously it'd be substantially more costly to do it in—on full time for every aircraft in the skies at the time. And I think you may also end up with a bit of information overload and clutter, but—and that may therefore reduce the effectiveness and the immediate response capabilities to some irregularity.

Angus Houston: Can I just add to that? I mean if there is an aircraft that is experiencing some sort of problem, it will become evident very quickly in terms of a deviation and the system just cracks in automatically and focuses on that and to an extent it's not necessary to track all of the aircraft continuously all of the time, because of that feature of the system, as it's intended to be implemented.

Question: So had this system been working fully last March over the area throughout South East Asia or throughout the trial areas, how closely would we have known where MH370 came from?

Warren Truss: Well, clearly within minutes. As Angus said earlier, the last track—the last pinpointed location for that aircraft was in the straits of Malacca, so that's why the search was there for such a long time and it was only when later satellite data was interrogated that it was possible to move the site a long way away. Now, had this system been in place then there would have been a ping from the aircraft. Firstly there would have been continuous connections and so the fact that it had changed course would have been immediately known. Now I appreciate that it would have been very difficult, one would imagine, without knowing what precisely occurred in the case of MH370, to have intervened from outside, but at least it would have tracked the aircraft to within 15 minutes of—and done so simultaneously. The big difference was it wouldn't have taken us weeks to interpret the data and to find then where the engines finally stopped.

Question: And the 15 minutes presumably would have triggered the heightened level of surveillance.

Warren Truss: Well, it would have been triggered seven hours earlier when it changed direction.

Question: And so you think it in all likelihood you would have monitored MH370 where and when it crashed?

Angus Houston: Well, I think we've got to be very, very careful, because you can turn this system off. So the system—what would have happened while the system was operating, we'd know exactly where the aircraft was, but if somebody had turned the system off, we'd—we're in the same set of circumstances as we've experienced on the latter part of the flight of MH370.

Question: Is there an argument though that it should never be able to be turned off?

Angus Houston: Well, this is one of the arguments that is put forward is if there is an electrical problem, which results in smoke or even worse, fire, you need to be able to isolate the electrical systems that are affected. So this something that needs to be looked at and discussed very carefully before any decisions are made.

Question: If it had operated as intended, is it your belief that the aircraft could have been recovered?

Angus Houston: As the Deputy Prime Minister has said, essentially if this system had remained operative on any aircraft—let's talk about any aircraft. If the system is operative on any aircraft, we're going to know quite precisely where it ran into trouble and that would be the starting point for any subsequent search and rescue activity. And I think you're much better off if you've got a last known position that is within minutes of where the aircraft disappeared than the circumstances we have with 370, where the last known position is several hours flying time away from where the aircraft probably ended up.

Warren Truss: And one further factor; it was very helpful in finding the Air France aircraft that there was debris still floating on the surface at the time the searchers got to that location. We didn't get to the right location until well after any debris would have sunk to the bottom of the ocean. So, in reality, getting an early or more up to date positioning, if we had even got early advice that the aircraft had so significantly changed course, we wouldn't have lost those early weeks searching in the wrong place.

Question: Am I right to say the technology to achieve this is [indistinct] suggested on [indistinct] is clearly quite old technology, so the capacity has been there to do it for a number of years? Fair comment?

Warren Truss: It's not [audio skip] 37s, but it's on the wide-bodied aircraft that, as Angus said, the 747 400 series, which has been around for a long time, that's true. So there has been some capability, although this is a relatively new satellite too isn't it, so whether all of the pieces were in place would require a bit further research. But having said that, I think public awareness of the significance of being able to track aircraft more precisely over oceanic areas has heightened and that's led to a focus on what we might be able to do to better monitor aircraft all the time.

Question: Was this system available on MH370?

Angus Houston: Yes, yes, the FANS equipment was on—it's a 777—it's on all 77s, it's on 330s, it's on every wide-bodied aircraft after the Boeing 747 400. So it's not on, for example, the old classic 747s, but it is on all modern wide-bodied aircraft. It is not normally on the narrow-bodied aircraft like a 737. So it's a system, again, FANS—Future Air Navigation Systems. It is a system that Qantas have used to track their aircraft over oceanic areas for a number of years. We have been tracking Qantas aircraft for a number of years with data link messages back every 30 to 40 minutes. What's different about this is we're bringing down the reporting to 15—less—up to 15 minutes—I think in actual fact we'll be having reports every 14 minutes and this means—and with this facility to be able to go down to five minutes or less when there's a deviation, obviously means that we're going to be in a much better position, not only to track the aircraft, but if something goes wrong, to provide the necessary information to the search and rescue authority as to where the best place to start the search is.

Question: [Indistinct] sorry just to follow up on that, I misunderstood; was this system actually switched off on MH370?

Angus Houston: Well, I would think yes, yes. The only thing that was—I mean the ACARS was turned off, the transponder was turned off and I would think that these systems would have been turned off, although I don't know precisely. The only thing that we were getting from MH370 well the satellite—the Inmarsat satellite was picking up was the hand shake, the exchange between satellite, ground station and aircraft.

Warren Truss: That was the Boeing system.

Angus Houston: Yeah.

Warren Truss: Sorry, no, the Rolls Royce system, the engine control system.

[Audio cuts out]

Warren Truss: …per cent of wide-bodied aircraft in use today are fitted with ADSC. Now, the 737s and A320s that we fly in a lot around Australia, they're in constant radar contact or they use ADSB as well when they're out of radar contact. So there is continuous monitoring of aircraft over land; the issue has been these vast oceanic areas.

Question: …wide body means [indistinct] things that are going overseas.

Warren Truss: Well, it means a wide body is an aircraft with two aisles.

Question: And with airline compliance, this will be all appropriate models that enter our remote air spaces or is this airline specific to designated carriers?

Warren Truss: Well, all aircraft of those types are equipped and so therefore can be monitored.

Question: Air Chief Marshall I wonder if you could tell us today how confident you are of completing—that the search of the MH370 area will be completed as expected, I think, in May and could you give us an idea of your level of confidence that you will either find or exclude fairly strongly MH370 being in the area?

Angus Houston: Look, I'm not directly involved in the search at the moment and all I know is the search is ongoing. About 40 per cent of the priority area has been covered thus far and I know we have four ships out there, three of them with Towfish, another one with an autonomous underwater vehicle and everything that can possibly be done to find the aircraft is happening out there in the Southern Ocean. But I think you're all aware that the Southern Ocean, as we start to get into the winter months, becomes quite a demanding operating environment and I would be confident that the search will eventually be complete sometime around the middle of the year, noting that the weather will be very challenging in the deepest part of winter.

Question: And Mr Truss we're almost coming up to a year [audio skip] the aircraft.

Warren Truss: Well, we are searching in the—what is considered to be the most prospective area. We began the search in what we thought was the most likely part of the most prospective area and so far it hasn't turned up anything of interest. That's, I guess, disappointing, because we always hoped that we would find something on the first day, but if we find it on the last day, well, that will be, I guess, also a significant breakthrough. What I am convinced of is that we have the best available technology involved in this search, the best equipment in the world and that the search is being conducted in a very professional way. I've got no doubt that if the aircraft is in that location then our equipment will identify it, even if it's in very small pieces. So we've got the best available technology and I think we can say with a high degree of confidence if we haven't located it, well, it's because it's somewhere else; the aircraft is somewhere else.

We are relying on the data put together by the best agencies in the world to choose that location. Overall there's about 1.1 million square kilometres in that prospective area, although I think about half of that is, on the basis of more recent information, been discarded. So we're looking mainly now in the southern part of the search area, south of the trench and there—but even then we've—our initial search area is only 60,000 square kilometres, so there's potentially other areas in that prospective zone that would be of interest. So we're proceeding every day with the maximum possible effort, with the best equipment, in the location that's been identified by the best experts in the world as the most likely place where the aircraft is and I'm confident if it's there we'll find it and on the advice we have we're looking in the right area.

Question: Deputy Prime Minister we've had Minister Frydenberg concede that there'll be some who will never be convinced that Mr Abbott should remain in his current role. Can he maintain full—that he holds the full confidence of the core members of the Government if that concession is now given?

Warren Truss: Well, the leadership of the Liberal Party was resolved three weeks ago. The issue really should rest there. The decision has been made and you can't keep revisiting these issues every week because somebody remains discontent. What is important is that the whole team works together—works constructively together to deliver good government for Australians and provide the vision and the leadership that the people of Australia expect from their elected government.

Question: But Deputy Prime Minister isn't that sort of a head in the sand approach? Because clearly the first bill resolved nothing there was still a lot of people that were unhappy and the Prime Minister at least won't be people are saying Mr Prime Minister's leadership is terminal?

Warren Truss: Well I think the vote three weeks ago decided everything. There was a clear vote, a clear majority for the Prime Minister and the issue should rest there.

Question: Are you expecting a police to Cabinet conversation on this tomorrow Deputy Prime Minister?

Warren Truss: No I'm not expecting that the Cabinet would deal with Liberal Party leadership issues. What the Cabinet deals with is the Government, the business of the agenda of the day. We deal with the things that matter for our country and will therefore be dealing with a business agenda not party politics.

Question: Mr Truss the Nationals have candidates in the field obviously at the New South Wales state election. Are you getting blowback out in the electorate that this conversation about the Prime Minister's leadership is affecting your chances of your campaign, your state election?

Warren Truss: Well I'm sure that the state candidates would like the New South Wales election to be resolved on state issues. It should be. This is a test of the Liberal Party and the Nationals' leadership in New South Wales and that is what is on trial so people should not be taking into account what might be happening in other tiers of government or in other states. The New South Wales election is an election for the New South Wales voters to decide who they want to govern them in the next four years and frankly I think the incumbent government's been doing a good job in New South Wales and they deserve to be re-elected.

Question: Are you heartened by hardened by the Prime Minister's signals that he's willing to retreat on the Medicare co-payment?

Warren Truss: Well I think the Prime Minister has indicated very strongly his willingness to consult with the backbench, to re-engage on policy issues to revisit issues where there are particular difficulties and in some instances it's the inability to be able to get those policy decisions through the Upper House, he's indicated a willingness to do that and I think his actions since that time have demonstrated in a really practical sense that that is exactly what he's doing and looking at the way forward and what we can achieve rather than what we might hope to achieve but cannot possibly get through the Parliament.

Question: Do you think Malcolm Turnbull is mischief making?

Warren Truss: Well I think Malcolm Turnbull's doing a good job in getting the NBN back on track and that's an important part of his work as a part of the Government and because the NBN is very important to this Government's agenda so I hope people will concentrate on his work and his portfolio and his achievements in that regard.

Question: Given this issue is continuing to roll along though and cause a distraction for the Government do you personally intend to address this matter with the Coalition at the joint party room meeting?

Warren Truss: No because it's a matter for the Liberal Party and the Liberal Party will deal with it as they see fit. I think they did that three weeks ago so now it's important for us to get on with the day to day business of government.

Question: Do you find this mildly frustrating?

Warren Truss: I certainly find the speculation in the media et cetera frustrating. More than mildly frustrating, I find it very frustrating because I've got important things I want to do in my portfolio and we are making some very significant announcements about infrastructure but also announcements like we've had today and the signing just a couple of days of the OneSky air traffic control system contract. Now those are really important things and I would like the space in the newspapers and in the media to be occupied with those good announcements rather than the empty speculation of observers.

Question: Will you consider a coalition agreement with another leader such as Julie Bishop or Malcolm Turnbull?

Warren Truss: We have an agreement with Tony Abbott which we're perfectly satisfied with.

Question: Do you believe dumping the co-payment is essential for the Prime Minister to show that he's been listening to the backbench concerns? Particularly those in regional areas?

Warren Truss: Well I think it's important for us to have a good solid health policy that's sustainable and you have to consider everything in that agenda. Health is not something just about today and next week it's something we've got to be able to ensure is available to Australians in future generations and we know that the expenditure in that area's growing very strongly beyond the revenue that governments are going to collect in future years as we see the intergenerational report later this week I think that the evidence of that will become clear to everyone that some of the things we're doing now are unsustainable into the long term and so we need to make adjustments to ensure that the privileges we enjoy as Australians in this day and age will be available to our children and grandchildren. I think that's a key responsibility of any government. Not just to live for today but to also ensure that we are planning for a sustainable future.