Airport comms upgrade

BALLINA Byron Gateway Airport is looking at upgrading its radio service to fill a communications dead zone below 8500 feet around the airport.

Entrepreneur and pilot Dick Smith drew attention to the dead zone last week when he flew into the airport and said pilots approaching it were "flying blind".

Mr Smith called for airport firefighters to be allowed to communicate with pilots once they dropped below 8500 feet and outside the reach of Brisbane air traffic control.

The airport, the second biggest in regional NSW behind Newcastle, has 430,000 passengers land on its tarmac annually.

"There is communication; the pilots talk between themselves and self space but this will be an upgrade in communications," airport manager Neil Weatherson said.

Under current Civil Aviation Safety Authority regulations, planes below 8500 feet around Ballina airport are in uncontrolled airspace and Brisbane air traffic control can no longer direct them.

Mr Smith said this forced pilots to switch radio frequencies so they could talk and work out their proximity to each other's aircraft.

A Virgin Airlines pilot, who didn't want to be named, told NewsCorp safety was an issue at Ballina.

"I find it quite extraordinary that we have at Ballina a new fire rescue service to deal with an accident, but we have no risk mitigation in place to stop it happening in the first place," the pilot said.

A CASA spokesman rejected a NewsCorp report claiming the authority "buckled" under pressure to change the rules.

The spokesman said firefighters had been able to operate Unicom radios, with CASA approval, since 2005.

The airport's $13.5 million fire station was required under CASA regulations as more than 350,000 people use the airport annually.

Mr Weatherson said the airport was preparing a report to assess upgrading to a Unicom radio system, to be operated by firefighters or a certified air/ground operator.

He estimated either system would cost about $250,000 a year to staff.

"The risk assessment by CASA and Airservices Australia said it's okay the way it is," he said.

"We've had the fire station in place to deal with any issues since December; we implemented new required navigation performance procedures last January. There have never been any major incidents or deaths at the airport.

The report would also consider passing higher costs on to passengers.

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