Ongoing debate over Erebus

Minister of Transport Maurice Williamson tabling the Mahon report in the House of Representatives in 1999.

The ongoing debate

The debate over whether pilot error or Air New Zealand was to blame for the Erebus disaster continues today. It is often revived by media interest or by events held on anniversaries.

On 18 August 1999 the Minister of Transport, Maurice Williamson, who worked at Air New Zealand as a corporate planner at the time of the crash, tabled the Mahon report in Parliament. Present for the occasion were Maria Collins and Anne Cassin, the widows of two of the pilots on the flight, and Margarita Mahon, Justice Peter Mahon's widow.

Williamson argued that the time for apportioning blame was over; he was tabling the report because 'of the lessons it taught'. He commented that:

The International Civil Aviation Organisation says the report was 10 years ahead of its time; that subsequent high-technology systems catastrophes such as those at Chenobyl and Bhopal need not have happened if the international safety community had grasped the message from Erebus and adopted its prevention lessons.

Passing on

Among the key players involved in the investigation and Inquiry who have since died are Peter Mahon, Morrie Davis and Ron Chippindale.

Williamson’s action once again stimulated debate over who had been at fault. Some involved in the accident investigation and Royal Commission of Inquiry argued that he should also be tabling the judgements of the Court of Appeal and the Privy Council on the report. New Zealand First MP Robyn McDonald, whose father E.T. Kippenberger had been the director of the Civil Aviation Division at the time of the crash, attempted to table these judgements but was refused permission to do so.

Two months later, on 23 October 2009, Air New Zealand’s chief executive Rob Fyfe unveiled Momentuma sculpture marking significant events in Air New Zealand's history, including the Erebus disaster. During the ceremony he apologised to those the airline had let down in the aftermath of the tragedy. He commented:

I can't turn the clock back, but as I look forward, I would like to start this next step in our journey - by saying sorry. Sorry to all those who suffered the loss of a loved one or were affected by the Erebus tragedy and who did not receive the support and compassion they should have from Air New Zealand.

For many, this apology did not go far enough. Maria Collins, the wife of Captain Jim Collins, the pilot of Flight TE901, saw it as a step in the right direction. But she still hoped to clear her husband's name, commenting that his 'integrity is still very much on the line and I'm still keen to see that intact again'.

Next page: Expressions of sympathy

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