Minister for Infrastructure and Transport The Hon Darren MP: ABC SA Country Hour

08-Aug-2017 Marty McCarthy: The Federal Government will conduct a review of security amid concerns there is no screening of regional airport passengers on planes weighing less than 20 tonnes. There is already a security crack down at major domestic airports nationwide following a foiled terror plot last month to bring down an aircraft using an improvised device. Regional airports are usually free of the excessive security measures used at big city airports, but is that about to change? Federal Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Darren Chester joins us now. G'day Minister. 

Darren Chester: Good afternoon Marty.

Marty McCarthy: Minister, regional fliers aren't usually scanned at their local airport, so places like Mt Gambier and Broken Hill, so people could effectively travel to a major domestic airport unchecked, is that suddenly a problem?

Darren Chester: Well it is important to be keeping our security measures under constant review to ensure that they do remain appropriate as to the current threat or the risk environment. Now, obviously you mentioned in your opening comments the terrorist plot that was uncovered last week and it is important that we learn from that experience and make sure that our current settings are at the appropriate level now. When you do approach a regional airport there is a range of security measures that are in place, some which will be visible to the travelling public and others won't be. So we do take it very seriously and we have in excess of 170 airports around Australia that are required to have their own transport security plans in place and we work with them very closely in that regard.

Marty McCarthy: So is there a specific terror risk identified at regional airports though or is this just a review as a general precaution?

Darren Chester: No, you are right on the latter point, Marty. The response to this terrorist threat last week in terms of this regional review is part of our normal course of business. It is a precautionary measure to make sure that our settings are appropriate. This is not in response to any specific threat whatsoever and we will be taking any steps that are deemed necessary by the experts in the field. So, obviously as the Minister responsible I take the safety of the travelling public with utmost seriousness. We have 137 million passenger movements each year in Australia, many of those are in regional areas and we need to make sure that the travelling public is kept as safe as it possibly can be.

Marty McCarthy: Darren Chester, there is concern that if you add extra security to regional airports flight prices will go up—and they are already quite expensive—do you concede this is a possibility?

Darren Chester: Well I'd concede that would be something we would need to consider in this whole balancing out of the equation. You need to make sure we don't have regional aviation regulated to a point that it becomes unviable for the providers of the service or those seeking to use the service. So that is why we need to work with industry, we need to work with local councils who are often very heavily involved in our regional airport operation. We need to be talking to the flying public themselves on what they regard as a reasonable price for them to be able to access the services.

Marty McCarthy: So it is possible though?

Darren Chester: Well that is the point I'm making. Every service that is provided in the airport does come at some level of cost. There is a range of security measures that are in place on all passenger transport in Australia; things like the locked cockpit doors to prevent unauthorised access, the pre-flight security checks and aircraft sweeps that occur, there is a whole lot of things that go on in an airport environment to keep the travelling public safe. The point of this review is to make sure that our current settings remain appropriate, and that we are adapting to any new or emerging threats and we're doing everything we can to keep the travelling public safe. I don't want to alarm people but I do want to make them aware that we are undertaking this review and we appreciate their vigilance as well. If they see something that is not quite right they should be contacting the national security hotline and providing that information as well.

Marty McCarthy: The airline Regional Airline has said the cost of mandatory screening would mean most regional centres would be left without an air service. Do you think that is possible at all?

Darren Chester: Well I have read those comments from one of the regional providers and that's—I guess reinforces the point I was making earlier that every step you take, it comes with a cost attached to it. That is why you need to make sure that you are responding in an appropriate way and calmly and coolly assessing the situation and rely on the expert advice on what measures need to be put in place. We don't want to be stifling growth in the aviation sector but at the same time safety is our number one priority. So you know, it is a somewhat equation to get exactly right but we are working every day to maintain safety of our aircrafts. I want to commend the intelligence organisations and the counter-terrorist groups who uncovered this plot in the last week or so, and just reinforce the point there was no safety breakdown in terms of the safety protocols at airports. The device involved in this occasion, the alleged plot, was never tested in terms of our x-ray screening devices in that regard.

Marty McCarthy: Darren Chester, Federal Minister for Infrastructure and Transport joins us on the Country Hour today. Minister, Rex Airlines is somewhat critical of this review and says people shouldn't give into what it calls hysteria. The company also said most regional planes have fewer passengers than a bus and yet buses aren't frequently checked. Is that a fair point, that you are going a bit overboard?

Darren Chester: Oh not at all, no, and I don't think that is what Rex is saying at all. I have had conversations with Rex in recent days and they are well aware of my response. This is a proportioned and practical response. We are not going overboard at all. We are simply—as a precautionary measure—reassessing the security settings at our airports around Australian and the regional and remote airports are part of that conversation. We are not over reacting in any way, shape or form. The travelling public expects the government to take measures to improve safety at all times. If there are new or emerging threats we will respond accordingly but it won't be any overreaction. It will certainly be liaising and consulting with the industry themselves, the airlines themselves and the airport operators.

Marty McCarthy: Will this review be for all airports or just the larger regional airports?

Darren Chester: The focus is on the in-excess of 170 airports that right now have scheduled passenger or chartered services. So from a South Australian perspective you are talking airports like Port Lincoln, Kingscote, Mt Gambier, Olympic Dam, Whyalla, Adelaide Airport itself, so the big operations that have those scheduled passenger or charter services. But we are always as a precautionary approach assessing what the risk may be for rural, regional, and remote locations and make our assessments on what are the appropriate measures that need to be put in place. That is why we are working every day with the intelligence agencies, getting information from them, and then making decisions about what security measures need to be put in place to maintain safety because obviously aviation is a critical part of the Australian economy. For those of us in regional areas it is a way we get around and link into our major cities.

Marty McCarthy: Darren Chester, thanks for your time.

Darren Chester: All the best Marty.