– Steve Hitchen
A proposal from the Federal Government to hand more control over regional airports to the state and local councils has the aviation community divided. Right now, many of the airports presented to the municipal councils under the ALOP scheme are balancing on a financial knife edge. Inspite of what incomes there may be, and what grants are available, most council airports are facing funding shortfalls for this year, most years in the past and several years in the future as well. Although government scheme are injecting cash for investment, it's nowhere near enough and in some cases, such as increased security, maintenance costs are laid at the council doorsteps. So how does the Federal Government arrive at the conclusion that handing more control to the state and local governments is a positive reform? It can only be related to the freedom to raise their own revenue or close the airport if they can't do that. The language in the proposal talks about "local requirements", which leaves open the ability to consider whether or not the airport is required at all. What the policy (or is it a policy?) ignores is that all airports are part of a greater infrastructure network where each airport relies the other airports. Every Point A needs a Point B. Other than for training, how often does a flight start and terminate at the same airport (OK, other than the QF flights to nowhere)? An infrastructure network this large has to be a federal thing that's immune from the sort of localised corrosion that mass airport closures would propagate.
The Federal Government has made a big hullabaloo about their plan to revitalse the Australian economy with a cost-saving deregulation program. For a broad range of regulated industries, it's manna from heaven and probably overdue. But will aviation be invited to that dance? In the recent issues paper The Future of Australia's Aviation Sector: Flying to Recovery, the government recognised that general aviation in particular would benefit from a lesser regulatory burden. Furthermore, follow-ups to the department garnered the proud statement that all regulated industries would be involved. Should we be picking out new party clothes? Not just yet. Aviation safety regulation is different in that the power to make regulations is the privilege of the CASA Director of Aviation Safety, screened by legislation from political influence. When the Department of Prime MInister and Cabinet was pressed on whether they were prepared to take on the DAS over aviation safety in order to pursue their deregulation agenda, things got sort of quiet. And they are still quiet. If successive Directors had supported some level of deregulation, they could have done it by now without the need for parliamentary intervention. Interference by politicians is always a gimmee in the house for the opposition, so an invitation to the great deregulation ball is unlikely to be extended to us.
If you're facing the renovation of a decaying two-storey mansion, it would be lunacy to spend millions on the upper storey and leave the underpinning first storey to rot. You would soon find out all your millions bought you was a shinier pile of rubble. Yet, the Federal Government has adopted this very tactic for helping the aviation industry survive: all the money is going to the airlines and the foundations of the industry, the flying schools, are getting next to nothing. In free Australia, that's not so much of an issue; flying is still happening, training is still happening, money is still flowing. But in lockdown Victoria there are more tumbleweeds taxiing than there are aeroplanes. Flying schools in the Melbourne basin, which account for about 24% of all CPLs trained in Australia, are reaching the end of their cash reserves. Drip-feed programs like Jobkeeper support the employees, but they provide cash for neither rent nor debt. A great implosion is coming, avoidable only by a large injection of funds from governments or a releasing of the shackles to allow revenue activity again. Representations to this end have been made to the right people, it's just that the industry is being given the wrong answers.
Australian Flying November-December has reached the hands of the readership! We've stacked this one with some really good material including examinations of new twins, competition aerobatics, Transavia's brilliant baby elephant and Qantas when it was still wearing short pants. Thanks to the usual retinue of writers that keep me honest and the magazine bright and fresh. Look out for it at your local newsagent now!
May your gauges always be in the green,