• The definition of general aviation covers a lot of different aircraft types and operations. (Steve Hitchen)
    The definition of general aviation covers a lot of different aircraft types and operations. (Steve Hitchen)

The Bureau of Infrastructure Transport and Regional Economics published its General Aviation Study report on 20 December last year with little fanfare and almost no notification to industry. However, the government is yet to provide any response or action items based on the conclusions.

Commissioned under former Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Darren Chester in October 2016, the report was due firstly by 30 June 2017, but was delayed firstly to 31 August and then promised by the end of 2017. The purpose of the GA study was to provide an overview of the GA industry, outline the challenges the industry faced and identify opportunities for action.

"General aviation (GA) is a diverse sector playing an important role in Australian aviation including in serving regional  communities," the BITRE study notes. "The industry covers all flying activity, manned or unmanned, other than commercial transport operations. GA includes flying training, mustering, firefighting and emergency service operations, search and rescue, aerial surveying and photography, towing, and private flying.*

" ... the GA industry in Australia has experienced a number of challenges, particularly since 2010, due to a combination of economic, demographic and regulatory factors."

The report goes on to list several key issues that the GA study identified, including:

  • an ageing aircraft fleet
  • changes to operating arrangements at some airports
  • the impact on small aircraft of airport upgrades to suit the needs of large aircraft
  • aviation safety regulation
  • changing flight training pathways

For trend analysis, the study uses data from the period 2010-15, and comments that although there is a downturn in activity, that downturn doesn't apply to all areas of GA.

"Several GA sectors, including private flying and flight training activities have experienced significant decreases since 2010, but this has been partially offset by increases in other areas, such as aerial mustering and search and rescue activity. GA activity internationally, from available data covering the USA, UK, Canada and New Zealand, also has been declining or is static."

The dataset BITRE used also shows:

  • although the number of GA aircraft has increased since 2010, 24% of those aircraft don't fly
  • the average age of the GA fleet is 32 years, 36 years for single-engined aircraft, 19 years for helicopters
  • there are almost 9000 Recreational Pilot Certificates on issue
  • the number of PPL holders has been in gradual decline since 2010
  • there are nearly 12,000 aeroplane CPLs and ATPLs in Australia, and 2730 helicopter CPLs
  • training hours have been on a steady decline since 2009.

Contributors to the study emphasised a number of causes of the downturn, including the cost of regulatory changes, fluctuations in avgas prices, maintaining the ageing GA fleet, the impact of airport leases and charges and the cost of attracting, training and retaining staff.

From this, the BITRE study report identified what it says are a number of opportunities for the industry and goverment to respond to challenges, namely:

  • fleet renewal and use of engines with fuel requirements other than avgas, including turbine fuels and biofuels
  • industry continuing to work with CASA on ageing aircraft policies, including adoption of aircraft manufacturer manuals incorporating extended life maintenance and inspections
  • targeted measures for enhanced training and retention - pilots and maintenance staff
  • CASA progressing the outcomes of current relevant GA-related safety regulatory reviews, including fatigue management, pilot medical requirements, safety regulatory requirements for self-administering organisations (e.g. RAAus) and remotely piloted aircraft systems
  • CASA to continue to seek opportunities for harmonisation of safety regulations or mutual recognition of Australian aviation industry services and products by other countries to enhance export opportunities for GA.
  • examination of aviation safety regulatory fees including a review of the number of hourly rates used by CASA relative to the number of fixed fees and possible removal/reduction of certain fees for GA
  • better engagement between airport and aircraft operators on future airport planning
  • harnessing the benefits of potential multiple commercial applications of RPAS, noting that increased integration of RPAS will only occur where safety standards are maintained
  • Government and the GA sector establishing a means of collecting comprehensive data on GA, including the sector's economic contribution, to better inform future policy development.

"[T]he GA industry in Australia has experienced a number of challenges," the report concludes, "particularly since 2010, due to a combination of economic, demographic and regulatory factors. Many of these challenges are also evident in the level of GA activity overseas.

"Some parts of the industry have done well over the period while others have struggled to respond to the evolving business environment.

"The GA industry will need to continue to adapt to the changing nature and structure of the aviation environment to ensure its continuing safe and sustainable operation."

The Department of Infrastructure and Transport has been contacted to find out when new Minister Barnaby Joyce is likely to respond to the report.

The full BITRE GA Study report is on the BITRE website.

 *BITRE reports that the Australian definition of general aviation removed charter flights in 2014 to fall in line with the ICAO definition.

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