Amidst the amorphic society that COVID-19 has created, the senate last week pressed ahead with their inquiry into the impact of safety regulation on general aviation, with all but CASA themselves appearing via video link. Even the chairperson, Senator Susan McDonald, was present in the room as a disembodied face on a video screen.
But the difficulties didn't let CASA off the hook.
The public hearing on Firday 20 November was the first for the Senate Standing Committees on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport (RRAT) inquiry into the state of the GA industry, with particular focus on the operation and effectiveness of CASA.
Over the five hours, the inquiry–which included also senators Rex Patrick and Glenn Sterle–heard evidence from nine groups including operators, associations, private individuals and CASA itself. Overall the picture being painted was one of an industry struggling under the weight of regulation and a regulator deaf to the appeals.
From calls to adopt the Federal Aviation Administration system of regulation to accusations of misfeasance and a negative impact on aviation safety, CASA and its system of regulation endured a litany of slings and arrows, with only the Regional Aviation Association, Recreational Aviation Australia and CASA itself providing any tempering input.
John McDermott, of QLD helicopter operator McDermott Aviation, told the inquiry that the complexity of the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations (CASR) was failing to make aviation safer than countries with simpler systems such as Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and the USA, and that it was the GA industry itself that ensured safety.
"CASA doesn't make industry safer; regulations don't make industry safer," McDermott testified. "We make industry safer because there are so many reasons for us to be safe other than just adhering to a regulation, which we've got to do.
"I believe we're safe despite CASA. At the moment I would suggest there are operations in Queensland that are operating outside of CASA's regulations, probably unknowingly, that are operating safely because the regulations that are there at the moment, for example, certifying of some aircraft or various type ratings ... are not being complied with, but are actually being done and being done safely despite the regulations."
McDermott also went on to tell the inquiry they have seen no evidence that the changes to the Civil Aviation Act 1988 that require CASA to take into account cost have made any difference "at the coalface."
That position was later supported by North Queensland Aviation Services' Mary Brown, who admitted the situation had become so tenuous that the company had developed a strategy to exit the aviation industry.
AOPA Australia's Ben Morgan–one of CASA's more strident critics–went so far as to say he thought the decline of general aviation was intentional and reiterated calls for a Royal Commission into safety regulation.
"Over the last four-and-a-half years, I've taken [many issues] to CASA on numerous occasions, and they've been thoroughly ignored," Morgan said, "and so the decline of the Australian general aviation industry is not [an] accidental occurrence, it's an intentional occurrence, because CASA are aware that these things have been driving broad decline in our industry, but they have been unwilling to either listen to industry or even consider that they must change direction in order to stop the industry being forced out the back door."
Phil Hurst, CEO of the Australian Aerial Application Association (AAAA) supported the position that CASA was reluctant to listen to the GA industry, saying that the regulator was the "primary restriction" on GA and that the consultation process was "appalling window-dressing".
"The consultation consists of CASA telling you what they've decided and then you trying to talk them down off the high building," he told the committee. "Sometimes we're successful, sometimes we're not."
Hurst, who sat on the Aviation Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) was also critical of the way CASA used the Technical Working Groups (TWG), in particularly the Part 138 group, claiming there was a disconnect between real risk management and what the regulations call for. He also stated that TWGs were given misleading information on what was to be included in the final regulations.
However, Malcolm Sharp, chairman of the Regional Aviation Association of Australia (RAAA) said that he believed what was hurting general aviation was competition, citing young people finding more exciting things to do, the proliferation of recreational aviation and the rise of low-cost carriers as concerns. RAAA's position according to Sharp is that CASA shouldn't be a "punching bag" for everything.
Sharp supported the AAAA's contention that the work of the TWGs was being "hijacked" within CASA and also said he believed there were people within the regulator who were intentionally blocking reforms and that those people needed to be weeded out.
Sharp also said that as an industry, GA needed to move on because CASA was only part of the issue.
The most passionate evidence came from former Australian Pilot Training Alliance (APTA) boss Glen Buckley, who was scathing in his assessment of CASA to the point of making pointed accusations of misfeasance, and said that he believed CASA "reverse engineered" process in the case of APTA in order to achieve a pre-determined outcome.
In defending his organisation, CASA Director of Aviation Safety and CEO Shane Carmody said that he believed not all the evidence given was accurate.
"Listening to all the statements today, there's certainly been some positive contributions to the debate on general aviation, but there have also been some highly negative statements about CASA, some possibly valid, but some have to be contested because I would argue that they are wildly inaccurate," he said.
Carmody also said that he was disappointed that some of the issue raised were made to sound as if they were current when they had been raised several years ago. He also pointed out that CASA had inherited the regulatory reform program in 1995 and that in the period 2000-10, 22 new regulations were finalised with a further six between 2010-16.
"A number of the people who spoke today were involved with the process from the outset," he pointed out, "and they still might be a bit unhappy with the outcome, but they were involved with the consultation for 15 years. Since 2015, I've created the Aviation Safety Advisory Panel, and within three years we completed the 11 remaining regulations and they have been made.
"The were all consulted under the Technical Working Groups, and some people have made the point that in the past three to four years there has been increased consultation."
Carmody said that suggestions made in submissions that the regulatory reform program was still underway was "disingenuous."
A visibly emotional Carmody went on to address several issues raised directly, indicating that CASA had approved 25,000 aviation medicals and rejected 84, which he believed hardly constituted "systematic abuse" as claimed by AOPA. He also contested Ben Morgan's claim that CASA regularly ignored AOPA, saying they had responsed to him many times.
After several witnesses stated that there had been no change to the way CASA operates after the changes to the Civil Aviation Act 1988 had passed through parliament, Carmody responded to a question by Senator Patrick by saying that CASA genuinely considered cost and had processes in place to try to comply with the legislation.
The senate inquiry is ongoing and is still taking submissions, with an interim report still due on the last parlimentary sitting day of 2020, currently 10 December.