• Many GA operators rely on overseas tourists for business, and the COVID-19 calamity has some in deep trouble. (Air Adventures)
    Many GA operators rely on overseas tourists for business, and the COVID-19 calamity has some in deep trouble. (Air Adventures)

Australia's general aviation community is under pressure from a severe downturn caused by COVID-19, which has prompted AOPA Australia to call for government action that it says is desperately needed.

Minister for Infrastructure Transport and Regional Development, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, yesterday announced relief measures for the aviation industry, but the announcement appears to limit the $715 million to domestic and regional airlines.

“Our airlines run on tight budgets at the best of times and these past few weeks have been particularly tough," McCormack said. "I’ve been speaking with Australian airline executives every day and will continue to work with them to make sure they receive the support they need.

“Providing this assistance not only helps our airlines but also the entire aviation industry, regional Australians in particular and other industries such as tourism and trade, which depend on aviation."

AOPA Australia CEO Ben Morgan says that more needs to be done to help out the general aviation industry, which is struggling under the weight of a severe down-turn caused by a lack of international visitors to Australia.

"We are deeply concerned for many general aviation charter, maintenance and flight training operations," Morgan told Australian Flying. "We've been contacted by a number of operators who have explained that they've already taken tough decisions to lay off pilots and staff and have extremely large leasing arrangements for aircraft and rental contracts with airports.

"These businesses are under enormous financial pressure right now and it's not likely that pressure will ease because tourism has almost ceased for some operators, and there's not enough work in the charter market to sustain operations.

"We are facing the most unprecedented challenge for our industry. Never in the history of general aviation have we faced a challenge so significant with such clearly devastating outcomes in the short to medium term."

Morgan said that AOPA had contacted a number of organisations asking for temporary relief from costs to help the industry get through the COVID-19 episode.

"AOPA Australia has communicated to the Deputy Prime Minister's office that we desperately need relief and support. We've called for CASA to waive and suspend many fees and charges to the GA community. We've done the same with Airservices. We also asked for GST and payroll tax relief and asked CASA to halt work on any new regulations and suspend the new fatigue management rules for charter until the broader economic situation stabilises.

"This is a very serious and dire situation for the sustainability of our industry. We are going to need federal, state and local governments to all start taking a direct hand in assisting the industry."

Morgan believes the future of GA in Australia depends upon co-operation to find an industry-wide solution.

"We are all in this together, regardless of how we got here," he said. "To successfully navigate our way through, we are going to need the entire aviation business community to work together. We must come through this, so at the end we still have an industry. If we don't manage this properly, the damage may be catastrophic."

Geelong-based Air Adventure runs outback trips using third-party air operators. The company flies hundreds of tours each year, relying on both domestic and international passengers. With the bread-and-butter coming from outback trips in the dry season and golf tours to Tasmania in the summer, it is understandable the company is under pressure.

"We we've been impacted in that we have international people who come to Australia to join our tours, and with them coming in and not being able to satisfy the need to self-isolate for 14 days makes it not feasible for them to go ahead, so we've been seeing a lot of postponements," said Managing Director John Dyer.

"Our objective is to not lose the business but defer it. We're trying to do the right thing by both our customers and ourselves to protect our long-term future.

"We've got a combination of individuals and tour groups that are pulling out. We do a lot of work for groups, and that can be a 14-day extensive trip right across Australia. We've had a couple of instances high-revenue jobs like that have had people on board that are from overseas, so it's just not possible for us to go ahead on the set date."

Dyer says that around 60 people have already withdrawn from trips, equating to about $A200,000 in business. That loss has a knock-on effect thoughout both the tourism and aviation sectors.

"We're not using the aircraft, we're not burning the fuel, we're not paying the landing fees ... all of those things are getting put off."

Dyer, too, believes the solution lies in industry-wide steps to ensure future viability, fueled by help from the government.

"Everybody is in this together and that includes the ground operators. There's going to be short-term pain, but in the long term, if we can retain the business, the customer still wants to do the trip, then that's a win-win.

"In the short term, we have fixed costs that we have to cover and our cash flow is going to be interesting. Any assistance that the government can give us to help pay people wages would obviously be welcomed."

Sources at the Department of Infrastructure and Transport have told Australian Flying that further announcements on the aviation assistance package will be made early next week when the measures go before parliament.

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