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Friday, July 7, 2000 Airport blackout crisis By ROBERT WAINWRIGHT, Transport Writer

Sydney Airport faced a frightening test of its emergency procedures last night when the main air traffic terminal control centre lost power, and with it radio and radar contact with 20 planes in the air above the city for up to 15 minutes.

The blackout occurred during a peak traffic period. More than 1,000 people on domestic and international flights were forced to circle Sydney, their pilots unable to communicate with the air traffic controllers who co-ordinate traffic movement between five and 45 nautical miles out from the airport.

Airservices Australia officials could not explain the power loss last night, nor could they say if there was any infringement of the separation rules which keep planes at a safe distance from each other.

Officials, who insisted that passengers were not in danger, said the professionalism of pilots and air traffic control staff, who realised the potential danger and switched to pre-determined holding patterns, prevented a possible mid-air accident.

At the height of the emergency the Herald was contacted by an air traffic controller who said staff inside the building had no way of contacting pilots or the airport control tower, which directs aircraft as they taxi, take off and land. Nor could they contact the Melbourne or Brisbane centres which run the wider air traffic control systems across Australia.

Passengers aboard some aircraft said they were told there was a power and control tower problem. Others were told there was an instrument problem which forced their plane to head back out to sea for 15 minutes.

The Federal Minister for Transport, Mr Anderson, who is in London on the Centenary of Federation tour, has called for an immediate report into the "serious" incident.

The emergency also caused delays for planes leaving and arriving over the next few hours. Between 6pm and 7pm - when more than 60 aircraft normally arrive and depart - just four aircraft moved in or out of the airport.

One air traffic controller described the blackout inside the Terminal Control Unit as catastrophic. "There was a complete power failure. They lost everything from the lights in the room, to the radar and the air-ground radio frequencies," he said.

"There is a semi-regular occurrence of failures, but this was catastrophic. I wouldn't like to have been up in the air.

"I don't know why the back-ups didn't work, or why it failed in the first place, and why there isn't a simple battery-power radio back-up system to talk to aircraft."

A spokesman for Airservices, Mr Richard Dudley, said the power supply was lost for 12 minutes just after 6pm. The power was restored after two minutes, but it took 10 minutes for the system to be rebooted.

"At no time was there any danger to passengers in the air or on the ground," he said.

"We have had power outages over decades but in terms of magnitude I would not like to comment at this stage."

But Mr Dudley described the problem as a power outage which happened about 6pm.

"There were 20 planes in the air at the time, both arriving and departing.

"The cause of the outage is unknown at this stage though we already have technicians at the site.

"The staff and the aircraft crews immediately went to stand-by procedure, but the aircraft would have been sequenced for arrivals and departures."

A spokesman for Mr Anderson said: "The Australian Transport Safety Board is aware of the serious incident and is investigating.

"A report will go to the minister in London as soon as possible.

"The primary concern of Airservices is safety, and they should be ensuring that maintenance is always up to speed."

-- Martin Thompson (, July 07, 2000


Human error may have caused Sydney airport blackout

Source: AAP|Published: Friday July 7, 5:45 PM

Human error may have caused an unprecedented power failure which caused chaos at Australia's Olympic gateway airport.

International and domestic flights were disrupted and 20 planes were left circling Sydney Airport for up to 20 minutes when back-up generators failed to kick in after the blackout at 6.22pm (AEST) yesterday.

The 15-second power failure crashed the computer system at Sydney Operations Centre, which controls aircraft movements within a 45 nautical mile radius of Sydney until just prior to landing.

Air traffic controllers in Melbourne and Brisbane were forced to help redirect Sydney-bound planes into emergency holding patterns and slow them down, as emergency contingency plans were activated.

As two separate inquiries, by Air Services Australia and the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, got under way today, it was revealed maintenance workers testing the power supply system may have been to blame.

'The Sydney Operations Centre has multiple power sources, including diesel back-up generators,' Acting Transport Minister Senator Ian Macdonald said.

'Maintenance staff were conducting a test of the power supply system when the incident occurred.'

The Community and Public Sector Union said the incident was no surprise as Air Services Australia had slashed technical and engineering staff by 60 per cent during the past decade.

CPSU spokesman Alistair Waters said the staff cuts could cause a catastrophe.

'As you keep on cutting back and cutting back, the chances of a failure happening grow and grow and that does risk safety and in our view it's also very much a false economy,' Mr Waters said.

But Air Services Australia spokesman Richard Dudley aid it was irresponsible for the union to use the incident to raise disputes over staffing numbers.

'It's irresponsible of the unions to drag out, at this point in time, a longstanding debate that they've had both privately and publicly,' he said.

'The bottom line is that we do not make changes ... without closely analysing the impact that will have on our operations, and most importantly on the safety and integrity of the air traffic system.'

Mr Dudley described the incident as serious, and said it was the first of its type in Australia.

'We have had power outages before and electrical shortages, but we have always had backup systems activated,' Mr Dudley said.

'This is the first time it hasn't done that.'

He said communication between air traffic controllers and pilots was only cut for a few seconds, until they reverted to a separate back-up wired communication system.

The Sydney Airport control tower, which handles aircraft taking off or landing at the airport, was unaffected by the blackout.

In other developments:

* Major airlines expressed concern at the delay to international and domestic flights, which affected more than 1,000 people.

* The federal opposition called for a wide-ranging inquiry into the incident.

* The air traffic controllers' union Civil Air expressed concern that routine maintenance was being conducted during the peak period.

* The Australian Federation of Air Pilots said passengers had not been placed in any danger, because pilots were trained to respond to such incidents.

Sydney Airport currently averages up to 900 aircraft movements a day, and is expected to peak at around 1,040 movements during the Olympic Games.

-- Martin Thompson (, July 07, 2000.

Monday, July 10, 2000 Home > Page One > Article

'Faulty setting' caused airport chaos By ROBERT WAINWRIGHT, Transport Writer

Flawed manufacturing instructions and settings have been blamed for the power loss which threw Sydney Airport into chaos last Thursday, causing its radar and communications systems to collapse for more than 10 minutes while 20 planes were in the air.

And workmen who were doing maintenance on the system when it collapsed probably saved an even greater emergency because they were on hand to correct the fault in a matter of seconds.

Airservices Australia confirmed yesterday that the airport would have been in "big trouble" if the fault in a setting which determines the load factor when the system switches from batteries to mains power had occurred under normal operating conditions.

A spokesman for Airservices, Mr Richard Dudley, said staff had been cleared of any wrong-doing, and that the faulty setting was probably made in May during a staff training session. Mr Dudley would not reveal the name of the manufacturer because of possible legal proceedings.

"There is a manufacturer's setting designed to ensure that when converting from battery to mains power it is not overloaded. It is a self-protection device but appears to have been set too low," he said. "Our investigations clear the staff."

Asked if the presence of the workmen on Thursday had prevented a bigger disaster, Mr Dudley replied: "Yes. If they hadn't been doing the maintenance work on it, and it had happened when we needed the system to work, then we could have been in big trouble."

The union which represents the electrical technicians - the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union - blamed Airservices management for not testing the new settings.

"It would have cost money to do this as it would have been done at a time when the airport could be shut down again," said union spokesman Mr Dan Dwyer.

"Management is the direct cause of the outage. It was their [management's] deliberate policy to not test the settings and they must live with the consequences."

Mr Dwyer said Airservices technical staff did a professional job in restoring the systems in the time that they did.

"There is no technical recovery plan for such a crash and no rehearsal for such a recovery plan. Technical staff had to rely on their own skill and knowledge."

Mr Dwyer said new settings had been put in place during the weekend but these had not been tested on line yet. This would have to be done when the airport could tolerate another possible shut down.

Mr Dwyer predicted the situation could get worse. In a few months, Airservices wanted to remove most staff from shift work and was also planning a 20 per cent budget cut after the Olympic Games, he said.

"We were already adopting high-risk strategies. The Sydney Control Tower was accepted with more than 100 documented functional defects."

-- Martin Thompson (, July 09, 2000.

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