– Steve Hitchen
Accusing politicians of political interference with each other is a bit like accusing a football team of deliberately disrupting the opposition team's ability to score. It's basically what they exist to do. Oddly enough, I find myself in the position to have to make that very accusation in the lee of the RRAT report into the ATSB's report into the Angel Flight crash at Mount Gambier. Somehow, an inquiry into the ATSB resulted in recommendations that had nothing to do with the reason the inquiry was called. Ironically, in doing so, the RRAT has committed the same crime that they were investigating. Just as the ATSB investigated a pilot's actions and found against Angel Flight, so the RRAT has investigated the ATSB and found against CASA. As the matter was self-referred to the Senate, there are no terms of reference, leaving the RRAT to conclude whatever they want. I am going to speculate now. "Aviation safety" are two words no-one likes to hear raised in either the red room or the green room because it can only make powerful people look bad. I suspect those people may have pressed the RRAT into making a couple of wishy-washy recommendations and ignoring the bare-bones problems that this whole saga has exposed. I would demand an inquiry into the inquiry, but from where do we get the confidence that the outcome would have any integrity?
After a couple of false dawns, the Regional Airports grant program will open on 24 October. This promises $100 million in upgrade funds for regional airports that are desperately in need of it. It's a boost for the industry as it should encourage airport operators in the regions to seal or re-seal runways and taxiways, install lights and build fences; projects that were otherwise outside their financial capability. The kicker is that the government will provide only 50% of the money, so the operators and owners will still need to find the available dollars to fund the shortfall. It also raises the question about what is "regional" and what is not. The government is using the Australian Bureau of Statistics classifications of Inner Regional and Outer Regional, but a close examination shows that in terms of aviation, that may not be the best measure. Using the ABS classification brings up some anomalies: in NSW, Cessnock is eligible to apply but Maitland is not. The border between the Inner Regional and Major City classifications runs between the two. In Victoria, Coldstream Airport is eligible, but Lilydale is not. With the Remote Airports Upgrade Program (RAUP) the airport has only to service a remote area to be in the running for funds, but that has not been extended to the Regional Airports Program, where the airport must be located in the region. Gawler in SA is a case in point: it services the Inner Regional Barossa Valley, but is itself classified as Major City. Sorry Gawler, no money for you.
There is a bit of a stink beginning to waft out of the Northern Territory, and it is coming from charter operators incensed over the Royal Flying Doctor Service's move into commercial charter operations. Existing charter companies are viewing this as an unfair advantage because the RFDS is at heart a charity that gets a large amount of its funding from the general public. The actual depth of the ire is not easy to gauge and the argument itself is riddled with holes. Firstly, should any charity be allowed to run a commercial operation? The general answer to that is probably "yes". If a charity can get funds from an alternate source to ease the burden on the giving public, then I don't see a problem with that. The reality is that it happens all the time. Secondly, would existing charter operators be as dirty if another large company started ops in their prime market? The answer to that is also "yes", but they wouldn't be screaming "unfair" quite so loud. The way I look at it, the danger is that the RFDS charter operation could end up running at a loss and needing to draw on money given by the public to sustain it. We've all been fined in an outback pub for some nefarious "crime" and we pay our dues to the RFDS in good spirit. I suspect that spirit would turn dark if it was known the money was going to prop-up a charter operation running under the red line.
AOPA Australia's call for harmonised regulations across GA and recreational aviation is an astute one. It speaks to both politicians and bureaucrats in a language that they better understand and are probably more prepared to work with ... theoretically. Frustrating though it may be for GA, CASA doesn't want harmonised regulations because it is the very disparity that allows them to divest administration to the sports bodies. There is recognition in Canberra that some aviation sectors would be regulated into the ground if they were still administered by CASA, so the freedom and quasi-autonomy enjoyed by ASAOs is the reason why some sports aviation still exists. In the case of RAAus, CASA sees it as a way of permitting recreational aviation with lesser standards without being accused of reducing safety, something their bosses inside Captial Circle have trouble swallowing (see also first paragraph this column). If CASA was forced to harmonise the regulations, they would have to apply the more stringent rules, not the less stringent ones. That does not mean that AOPA's call for harmony is not valid; it has a lot of merit, but harmonisation presents more problems for CASA and the department than it solves.
The Australian Aviation Hall of Fame is inducting two men next month that have slipped severely under the aviation history radar: James Bennet and Walter Shiers. You probably won't know of them; their names were never up in lights. These two men accompanied the storied Smith Brothers, Ross and Keith, on their legend-building Vicker Vimy flight to Australia in 1919. Ross and Keith were knighted. Jim and Wally got some military decorations and a bit of promotion. It was echoed years later when Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm tried to sweep under the carpet their American traveling companions Jim Warner and Harry Lyon. Along with Nigel Love, the man who founded what is now Sydney Airport, Bennet and Shiers will finally get some recognition of the part they played in Australian aviation history. They will be inducted into the AAHOF on 16 November at a dinner in Anzac Hall at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. And it's not before time.
There will be no Last Minute Hitch next week, nor Australian Flying newsletter for that matter. I will be totally immersed in Ausfly and have been active with my highlighter on the seminar program, which won't leave me time to a good job with the news. Instead, look for The Last Minute Hitch and the newsletter on Monday 21 October. We should also have some good material out of the Ausfly weekend for you also.
May your gauges always be in the green,