By ERWIN CHLANDA
Fred discovers that there’s some water in his 20 litre jerrycan full of diesel. He takes it ‘round the corner and dumps it into a drain. Fred is committing an offence under NT legislation that provides for a maximum penalty of “imprisonment for not more than five years”.
The pilot of a passenger plane jettisons thousands of litres of aviation fuel into the air. There is no investigation, no penalty, and the airline refuses to answer questions which could clarify whether the dumping was an act of necessity or of convenience.
In case of the latter an offence would clearly have been committed.
Dumping fuel is rare and usually done off-shore but given the location of Alice Springs – under the international flight path and in the middle of the country – it is different.
Dumping happened over Central Australia on November 16 when Emirates Flight 432 from Singapore to Brisbane had to divert to Alice Springs because of a seriously ill passenger.
There is clearly no dispute about the priorities: The passenger’s welfare was paramount. The plane had to get on the ground as quickly as possible.
But the questions are, was jettisoning fuel necessary to bring the aircraft within its maximum landing weight (MLW), or within the maximum weight for take-off once the emergency had been dealt with.
If scenario one applied the aerial dumping was a necessity, no worries.
If scenario two did, an act of unnecessary pollution occurred because the excess fuel could have been decanted on the ground, after the needs of the ailing passenger had been met, and without causing any pollution.
Was aerial dumping ahead of the stop-over chosen because it was a lot less trouble than arranging decanting on the ground, and maybe cheaper, and reducing delay for the intercontinental flight – fewer grumbling passengers?
Trouble is, neither the Federal authority in charge nor the airline are answering these questions. The authority says it hasn’t got the answers (we should ask the airline) and the airline says it won’t give them: “Unfortunately I have no additional information aside from the media statement that was provided,” says a spokeswoman. That statement did not answer the specific questions from Alice Springs News Online:
• How much fuel was dumped?
• What was the aircraft weight when it landed at Alice Springs?
• What was the maximum allowable take-off weight at Alice Springs given the length of its runway?
The Boeing 777-300ER has a maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) of 351,500 kilos and a maximum landing weight (MLW) of 251,290 kilos.
The permissable weight for take-off is dependent on factors including the air temperature, the wind speed and direction and the length of the runway. The one in Alice Springs is 263 meters shorter than required for the MTOW of the Boeing 777-300ER.
Aircraft can land in less distance than they require to take off.
In approximate figures, the plane, burning 7500 kilos of fuel an hour, had already been in the air for four and a half hours when it reached Alice Springs. It may not have taken off with full tanks for the flight of just six and a half hours.
The dumping occurred over land under the jurisdiction of the Territory’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources and its pollution legislation: Fred with his jerrycan would face its wrath.
Not so the high fliers – literally and metaphorically.
Why? Because Section 109 of the Constitution of Australia kicks in: “When a law of a State is inconsistent with a law of the Commonwealth, the latter shall prevail, and the former shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be invalid.”
That means, in this case, as airborne dumping fuel is regulated by the Federal Government, dealing with any consequences such as pollution is taken out of the hands of the Territory Government, as the NT department explains.
This led the investigation by the Alice Springs News Online onto a merry chase.
The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) says it becomes involved only when safety regulations are breached. This would not have been the case in either scenario.
The pilot had requested permission to dump and Air Traffic Control granted it.
The Federal Department of the Environment and Energy handballed our enquiry to the Federal Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development (DIRD) which answered through a spokesperson: “Fuel dumping is at times required to lower the total aircraft weight to the maximum landing weight, which is why this dumping of fuel does not occur at ground level.”
That statement is not in response to a question we had asked.
“The fuel dumping commenced at 33,000 feet during the flight to Alice Springs and continued to 15,000 feet.”
“The Department does not collect the information you have requested at points 1, 2 and 3. We would suggest contacting the airline to obtain this information.
“It is worth noting that fuel is only jettisoned in exceptional circumstances. There are on average less than 10 events per year Australia-wide of the need to dump fuel from approximately 730,000 domestic and international passenger movements per annum, representing 0.001 per cent of movements,” says the spokesperson.
There is clearly a view that the pollution problem is minimised or avoided if the particles don’t reach the ground, but stay in the air, with no-one asserting that the particles never reach the ground. Is air pollution OK?
“If a jet aircraft is required to release fuel into the atmosphere, at high altitude, the fuel evaporates quickly. Only a very small percentage (in the order of 0.01 per cent) of fuel used by the aviation industry each year is released into the atmosphere.” (DIRD.)
“Dumping is normally done at an altitude where fuel vaporises before it lands on the ground.” (NT Department of Environment and Natural Resources.)
“Fuel evaporates before the ground.” (Civil Aviation Safety Authority.)
PHOTOS: At top – An Emirate Boeing 777-300ER similar to the one landing in Alice Springs (from the airline’s website). ABOVE: Photo by local aviation enthusiast Mitchell “Chip” Childs of the aircraft during its emergency in Alice Springs.