Queensland Senator Susan McDonald took CASA to task in a senate estimates hearing in Canberra yesterday over the regulator's cost burden and relationship with the general aviation community.
The Nationals senator, who is also the chair of the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee (RRAT), has positioned herself as a champion of general aviation since entering the senate in 2019.
McDonald grilled outgoing CASA CEO and Director of Aviation Safety Shane Carmody over the cost impost of new regulations, particularly in relation to the impending CASR Part 138 Aerial Work Operations.
"As I travel across Queensland, why is it that in my very short 50 years, we've gone from a thriving, busy aviation industry in this country to virtually no aircraft," McDonald asked. "They can't afford the maintenance, the pilots and operators continually say they cannot keep up with the regulatory changes demanded of them.
"You can't get engineers and this just sums up to me this concept: what is CASA trying to achieve by making changes that industry is saying is not necessary? There's not a reported number of accidents. I mean, we don't want to go back through the whole Angel Flight discussion ... of trying to fix a problem that hasn't been demonstrated."
Carmody replied that CASA's Manual of Standards for Part 138 had been prepared with input from the Aerial Application Association of Australia (AAAA).
"I believe that if we reduced aerial work classifications and authorisations that you are required to obtain from 42 to three, we've made this a lot simpler not more complex," Carmody pointed out. "That's been the aim of this; that's where this manual of standards is actually going.
"As I said, a lot of work has been done since that association, which is also part of the technical working group, put forward its submission, which I think is probably at least four or five months ago I suspect.
"I am strongly of the view that we are making Manuals of Standards, consulting with the industry very, very openly and transparently and making the type of amendments that they think are important."
Senator McDonald then asked Carmody to comment on the parlous state of general aviation and CASA's impact of the health of the industry
"Do you want to reflect on my view that there is virtually very few aircraft left in general aviation, particularly in places–I'm not talking about RAAus and the recreational guys–I'm talking about serious pilots and businesses that operate in regional and remote Australia?"
"General aviation, depending upon how you describe it, is declining around the world," Carmody responded. "Most general aviation aircraft in Australia are more than 40 years old ... young people don't necessarily want to join and maintain those aircraft and people don't want to fly them.
"On the other side of it, on the recreational aviation space, that space is booming. Ten thousand pilots and 3000 aircraft. There are only 15,700 aircraft on our register, so another 3000 are now in the recreation space."
McDonald reiterated that she had collected feedback from the GA industry in remote and regional areas that contradicted the position CASA was taking, particularly when it came to operators having direct dealings with the regulator.
"I would put to you that a very, very long way away from the comfortable walls of Canberra, where we do really serious remote and regional work, people can't afford to operate aircraft," McDonald said.
"Every pilot I speak to complains about the regulations and process of CASA and I have tried over the last 18 months to raise this gently, but I can't seem to get any understanding of why the culture of CASA is so against people who do real flying, in real places, not recreational pilots along the coast."
"I don't believe that CASA is against real pilots doing real flying," Carmody said. "They may say so, Senator, [but] every regulatory matter that has been put to us in recent times has been dealt with. I've heard those allegations constantly over four years and every time I've actually asked for something to fix, if I've been given it, we've had a look at it and fixed it.
"Maintenance costs on old aircraft are high; there's nothing I can do with the cost of maintaining 40-year-old aircraft. People register an aircraft once for life ... it costs them $138. I don't see what CASA's cost are that are driving the industry. I believe that security and airport charges are charges that drive the industry, but I'm not sure that my charges do."
McDonald then suggested that Carmody contact the CASA offices in Cairns and more remote parts of the country to get the full story.
"They'll be able to tell your they're trying to mediate between Canberra and the real pilots–as I'm going to describe them–and now the complete lack of engineering and maintenance services, and again, I can line them up.
"But if you don't know about it, and you don't believe it then that's a longer conversation."
Carmody indicated to the hearing that CASA had held a full board meeting in Cairns last year, which he said gave anyone in the aviation industry the opportunity to air grievances.
"Very, very few people would have come because they're terrified," McDonald stressed. "They say to me 'can you not mention my name? I don't want to go through the two years of investigation, the massive expense and cost if CASA turns its attention on me.'
"So I would put to you that that's the reason why you didn't see anybody."
Carmody said that CASA couldn't fix matters that people didn't come forward with and pointed out the role of the Industry Complaints Commissioner in resolving disputes.
"That process is used often and the complaints are resolved, I think, very quickly and monitored very closely by the CASA board," Carmody said. "I do hear, and I accept what you're saying, but it's not what I'm hearing when I travel. It's not always what I hear from staff in offices, but I do hear lots of allegations ... every time a real allegation has been made with a fact that an inspector has done X or Y, we deal with it."
"We will continue to disagree on this matter," McDonald finished with, "because I have literally hundreds of pilots [and] aircraft across Australia that are either in sheds, giving up their planes. People travel huge distances and I don't know that we have a focus on supporting them."
Senator McDonald is also the chair of the RRAT Senate Inquiry into Australia's general aviation industry with particular reference to rural, regional and remote Australia, which has so far gathered 30 submissions from the aviation community canvassing a very broad range of matters.