– Steve Hitchen
In most situations, pessimism spreads like wildfire and optimism has the viscosity of a glacier. But, after the AGAA summit in Wagga Wagga this week, general aviation finds itself on very unfamiliar ground, infected, it seems, with rampant optimism. The summit worked so well that it put itself outside the reach of the most persistent cynicism. Credit for that must go to everyone involved, but particularly to the organisers, AOPA CEO Ben Morgan and summit chairman Geoff Breust. Of course the true measure of any summit will be what it achieves. If everything said was delivered with sincerity and doesn't fall victim to political imperative, we are about to see large leaps forward in aviation reform in this country. How can that not happen now? Minister Michael McCormack and Shadow Minister Anthony Albanese both agreed they would work with the industry and each other to get through needed changes. Possibly the most-used word at the summit was "bipartisan". But has this infectious optimism blinded us slightly to reality? McCormack said in his speech that it was always hard to get anything done when you had a lower-house majority of only one seat. Why was this relevant when bipartisan co-operation will deliver the greatest possible majority you can have, as confirmed by Albanese in his speech? McCormack also pointed out that the requirement for CASA to take into account economic factors is contained in the Statement of Expectations, and that he and Albanese both agree that safety must remain the most important consideration in regulation. As the idea of the summit was to have the primacy of safety removed from the Civil Aviation Act 1988, it seems both these men were telling us it's not going to happen. Even if we make some progress, we are facing some serious headwinds to actually get it agreed to in parliament. We are now in the gravitational pull of the next federal election, and neither side will want aviation safety to even be mentioned in passing during that period. Voters won't understand, and that will scare them. If there is any threat of frightening the voters, both the opposition and the government will likely throw aviation reform under the AOPA bus. So why this flood of optimism?
From my seat I saw a general aviation industry that was working together in a co-operative and respectful manner with the aim of finally doing something about the parlous state we are in. There was still some paraochialism and self-interest, but it was like even that was recognised with respect and was never used as obstacles to agreement. This, to me, is Christmas in July. I have been crying out for co-operation and unity in general aviation since, like, forever. Earlier this week I saw it for what I believe is the first time in at least 30 years. So how can this new-born unity carry GA forward? Legislation is not the only way of making change happen; there is also regulation, which is the domain of the department and doesn't have to be approved by parliament. One of the recommendations, which I will credit to Mike Smith, was to establish an Office of Aviation Industry within the current department. The responsibility of that department would be to foster the aviation industry, promote Australian capabilties to the world and keep the other regulators and administrators honest when it came to sticking to policy initiatives and agreements. There is a very good chance this might get up. If it does, and is effective, it has the ability to make the changes that will release the GA industry's potential energy that is currently bottled up by ineffective regulation and government apathy. So, our new-found optimism has some merit, even if it can't bring about the desired legislative change.
That's not to say no legislative change will happen.There are some indications that both sides of parliament will agree to changes to include the need for CASA to take economic factors into account, but the primacy of safety will remain at Number One. It seems the summit delegates have conceded that, as the final alternative wording of the Act to go back to the department no longer calls for the primacy of safety to be removed, but now states that CASA needs to maintain safety as well as taking economic factors into account. There are some indications that this has a chance of being accepted, but as Albanese pointed out, nothing in parliament happens in a hurry, and no-one will make this an election issue. Consequently, we might have a bit of a wait on our hands.
And as is the custom, the minister arrived at Wagga Wagga armed with good-news announcements pertinent to the event he is attending. This time there were four: Basic Class 2 has started, Marc de Stoop has been appointed to the General Aviation Advisory Group (GAAG), CASA is starting work on new maintenance regs and that CASA insurance has been extended to those holding a Flight Examiner Rating. This last one got the most applause. It just made sense, and it's frustrating that it took so long for this to be done. When CASA introduced Part 61, Approved Testing Officers (ATOs) were CASA delegates and therefore indemnified by CASA, but the new Flight Examiners that would replace ATOs were not delegates, and therefore not indemnified. That left Flight Examiners open to litigation should an accident or incident cause be traced back to them. Many ATOs simply failed to make the transition, causing CASA to extend the deadline to 31 August this year. According to CASA, there are 800 people who have made the transition, but a further 260 who have yet to do so. The regulator has promised to smooth the path for those who have left the move to the last minute. With the insurance issue now behind us, the whole saga should soon come to an end.
And in another piece of commonsense-loaded good news, Airservices has waived $2 million in service fees for some not-for-profit aeromedical operators. These are groups that are usually very under-funded (although the RFDS does alright in that area) and provide services that have enhanced and saved lives right around the country. It makes sense that they should not only have fees waived, but also should be permanently exempt from further fees in the future. Every little bit helps, and if we're speaking honestly, these five groups need the money more than Airservices does. And in case the irony was lost on anyone, one of the aircraft used in the announcement photo shoot was Little Wings' Piper Malibu VH-FEE. Gotta love that.
May your gauges always be in the green,