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ATSB probes why Qantas 787 passengers waited on tarmac for 7 hours

written by Jake Nelson | March 14, 2023

Qantas 787-9 VH-ZNJ sits on the tarmac in Newcastle due to a diversion (@mediawisemelb)

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) has opened an investigation after it emerged the diversion of a Qantas 787 to Newcastle on 18 February was a result of ATC understaffing.

In an internal Airservices Australia report seen by The Australian, the diversion from Sydney – which left passengers stranded on the tarmac at Newcastle for seven hours, as the airport lacked adequate immigration facilities to process the incoming passengers from Santiago, Chile – was found to have resulted from three Sydney ATC staff being made to do the work of five.

Crucially, news of severe storms in the Sydney region was not passed on by “overloaded” air traffic controllers, which led to the aircraft wasting fuel. As Canberra was also affected by the adverse weather, the decision was made to divert instead to Newcastle.

“At approximately 7am, the Bureau of Meteorology advised there was a severe gust front approaching from the southwest. Additionally, there were SIGMETs (significant weather warnings) issued,” said the report.

“These meteorology products were not disseminated and broadcast as per the flight information service provisions. This information was vital to pilots, including (Qantas flight) QF28 which diverted to Newcastle while operating on minimum fuel.”


The ATSB is now investigating the incident and anticipates handing down a final report in the third quarter of 2023.

“During approach, the aircraft encountered moderate turbulence and high wind conditions and the approach became unstable. The crew conducted a missed approach and advised ATC of minimum fuel conditions. The crew diverted the aircraft to Williamtown where ground handling equipment was not sufficient for the aircraft size. The investigation is continuing,” the agency said.

“A final report will be published at the conclusion of the investigation. Should any safety critical information be discovered at any time during the investigation, the ATSB will immediately notify operators and regulators so appropriate and timely safety action can be taken.”

Airservices Australia declined to comment while the investigation is ongoing.

Australian Aviation first reported in February how VH-ZNJ, flying from Santiago to Sydney, had to divert to the northern NSW city to avoid a storm. When it landed, Qantas staff fetched passengers McDonald’s and drinks in the early hours of the morning.

The aircraft was unable to refuel immediately, and there was no accommodation in Newcastle or suitable immigration facilities at the airport.

However, Newcastle Airport is thought to be on track to be international-ready by 2024, with both airfield and terminal works scheduled for completion early that year.

Newcastle Airport CEO Dr Peter Cock said last year the investment has the potential to transform the city from a regional centre to a global destination.

“Our work to get Newcastle Airport international ready is already underway. Enabling works in our car parks are moving ahead, and construction of the new international terminal will be underway early next year,” he said.

“Conversations are also progressing with some of the world’s leading airlines. We recently attended the World Routes conference in the USA, where we continued conversations with our key stakeholders across the tourism and aviation sector and started new ones.

“This follows successful delegations to Singapore and Vietnam earlier this year. Our ambition is to connect to a significant Asian or Middle Eastern hub by 2024.”

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Comment (1)

  • Two things amaze me here, 1/ The ATSB’s final report in the 3rd Qtr 23???? and, 2/ from my perspective, holding passengers onboard for that length of time to satisfy some bureaucracy or a representative of same is totally unacceptable, it also shows no respect for the people concerned as a result of that decision and most certainly does no favours for the opinions of the other countries who’s peoples were involved as well. As with the other recent “event” at ASP, either the aircraft would have been advise prior to arrival that pax were to remain onboard or, by the ground staff upon opening of the doors. The question should have been asked, who gave that order and why and considering the circumstances was that order fair and reasonable for all concerned. If the answer was still in the negative did the airline rep escalate the problem to Ops Control for onforwarding to Facilitation and if needed the Minister for rectification action. From my experience, some personnel from what is now Border Force have a major problem with the difference between common sense and professional ideology. This/these 2 incidents could and should have been handled differently. Not a good look for our country!

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