The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) has been roundly condemned by both Angel Flight and the Centre Alliance for its recommendations stemming from the Mount Gambier crash report released on Monday.
The report's recommendations into the VFR-into-IMC accident deliberately focused more on the systems and management behind Angel Flight than the actions of the pilot, suggesting that Angel Flight should consider using regular public transport rather than private pilots (PPL) because it was safer to do so.
Angel Flight CEO Marjorie Pagani slammed the report, saying that the ATSB focus was of no help to general aviation.
"The ATSB offered no safety recommendations to pilots flying light aircraft in bad weather," Pagani said in a statement. "It is regrettable that the Bureau made no relevant safety recommendations, nor gave any guidance whatsoever, to pilots flying in poor weather conditions – the cause of the accident.
"It would have been of benefit to the flying community had the ATSB focussed on these aspects of the accident.
"The safety recommendation made was for the charity to book people on airlines for travel. This does not adequately factor in cost (particularly where two or more people are traveling, which is often the case), nor does it properly factor in the infrequent scheduling or non-existence of airline flights into country regions across Australia, the inconvenience and difficulties faced by the elderly and families with young children at major city airports, and the associated ground travel; and appears to work on the assumption that city specialists and hospitals will gear their appointment times around airline timetables.
"Angel Flight does use airline flights where practicable and necessary, and will continue to utilise these services."
Centre Alliance's Senator Rex Patrick was openly critical in a statement released through Angel Flight. Senator Patrick has opposed the CASA-imposed restrictions on community service flights and was behind motions to disallow lodged in the previous parliament.
"The findings in respect of community service flights are intensely bureaucratic in nature and clearly written by people sitting at a desk in Canberra without reference to any of the thousands of families that have been helped by organisations such as Angel Flight," Senator Patrick said.
"Indeed, its hard to take the report’s analysis of Angel Flight seriously. It asserts that many flights can be replaced by commercial services almost blind to the costs of regional flights, their limited routes and their limited schedules. Indeed, the data the ATSB uses to support its claim are based on the very narrowest of data sets.
"The ATSB uses ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’, coupled with predominantly subjective analysis, to portray community service flights as unsafe. Angel Flights use experienced pilots and safe aircraft. There is no difference in the safety case associated with a CASA certified pilot flying a mate to the footy in Melbourne and a CASA certified pilot flying someone to chemo therapy in Melbourne, except the the ill patient is more aware of the qualifications of the pilots and the risks associated with a flight.
"Its Pel-Air (Norfolk Island ditching) all over again - for that particular report the ATSB were found to be grossly incompetent and were ultimately required to redo the report."
ATSB Chief Commissioner Greg Hood defended the investigation report, saying that investigators deliberately shied away from focusing on the pilot.
"If you have a look at the way the ATSB works, we've been broadly criticised, particularly over the Norfolk Island report where we focused on the individual, so with this investigation, given that it was the second triple-fatality, our methodology took us to having a look at organisational factors, and that's why we put in the recommendations we did," he told Australian Flying.
"We went to look at the organisational factors, and one of the problems we encountered is that we didn't have any data. There was no way to have a look at the safety of that particular sector of the industry because the data didn't exist.
"Being private flights they weren't required to state that they were Angel Flights, so what we had to do was ask AF for the schedules and then go back into the flight plan database and then the incident database and match that up to give us some idea of the health of the industry in relation to occurrences and accidents."
On the matter of the recommendation to place clients on RPT, Hood took pains to point out that the ATSB recommended only that Angel Flight consider using commerical flights in the same manner as the Canadian Hope Air, which places 70% of all clients with medical appointments on RPT.
Hood stated that the issue with using PPLs is that Angel Flight missions appeared to impart greater pressures to complete that flight than the ATSB believed are present during general private operations, leading to the conclusion that RPT would be a safer option.
"We did go to great lengths to be balanced," Hood said. "I know that's no everybody's view, but what we were faced with is two triple-fatalities and when we were able to extract the data it was telling us something very clearly in relation to these pressures and so then it was a matter of what recommendations do you make?
"The ATSB has no legislative powers to enforce any of these recommendations; they are there to improve the safety of the traveling public in these particular flights."
Angel Flight also took issue with the data analysis used in the reports, stating that the ATSB didn't use straight comparisons when assessing the levels of reported incidents and accidents.
"The ATSB also chose to compare only the passenger-carrying sectors of flights coordinated by the charity – it disregarded the flights, also coordinated by the charity, where the aircraft flew from home base to the city collection points, the return trips back to base, and the positioning flights to collect passengers from their own home towns," Pagani said
"It did, however, include those flights when reporting ‘occurrences’ against the charity flights. There was, and is, no reason for this failure. To remove up to two-thirds of the coordinated flights in order to make statistical conclusions is unjustifiable. Moreover, when comparing the data with private flights generally, it did not exclude the non-passenger flights for that group – all flights were counted in the general private sector, but not in the charity sector."
Angel Flight is currently contesting the data used by CASA to justify applying restrictions to Angel Flight operations last March, with the matter scheduled to be back before the courts again in September. According to Greg Hood, the ATSB did not rely on the CASA data, but used its own analysis to arrive at a similar conclusion, that Angel Flights were statistically more dangerous than normal private operations.
"We've done everything entirely separately from the regulator," Hood pointed out. "We've been very careful in that space especially after the experience we had with Norfolk [Island] and previous investigations, so we obtained the data from Angel Flight [and] we did our own analysis completely independent from anything that was done by the regulator.
"I'm absolutely confident in the science applied to this. We have a number of data scientists here with PhDs and we had one team developing the science and arriving at conclusions and another team making sure that that was valid.
"The ATSB just wants [Angel Flight] to operate well and for the people who are being carried to medical appointments to have that level of assurance that they're going to get there safely."