– Steve Hitchen
Flying schools are charter operators Australia-wide are starting to grapple with the inevitability that most of our industry may be shut down in the days or weeks ahead. Whilst at first it seems that GA doesn't fall under any of the current government-mandated restrictions, some flying schools have abandoned dual flights to protect staff from potentially being exposed to coronavirus. It's the right thing to do, but the impact on cash flows and instructor incomes has been devastating. It could get far worse. The Victorian and NSW governments seem determined to go into lockdown if need be. That means staying at home and not making trips out to the airport even if it is safe to fly. The industry responses to this potential have been varied, from "reduce to turbulence penetration speed and see out the storm", to "it's Airmageddon!" Both positions are right. Some companies have the resources behind them to tame this tempest, whilst others will have to hand back their AOC, their aeroplanes and their house. With unemployment charts looking like the trajectory of a space shuttle launch, our lawmakers are completely overwhelmed and will be picking and choosing where to place money. Most interesting, at this stage, the Regional Airports grant program announced last year is still going ahead. Could those funds be better placed within the industry at the moment? With the wall looming for many GA companies, perhaps re-directing the cash to a fighting fund might be greeted with applause. Expanding airports can wait.
One of the great mysteries right now is the impact on the federally-leased airports such as the metropolitan Class Ds. The indications I am getting show that stressed operators are, at the very least, going to ask the airports for relief from leases that are already significant burdens. With movements likely to nose-dive in the event of a total lockdown, the airports will already be facing revenue losses. Where the airports are leased to development or investment companies, that will be welcomed like a dose of COVID-19 at a hairdresser. The point of owning the leases is that the property puts money into the parent company's coffers, not the other way around, which may encourage the owners to seek their own relief from the government. The US government, perhaps the most under-siege administration in the world at the moment, has created a $US100 million war chest for GA airports and you can bet the Morrison government will be under pressure from all quarters to do the same thing here.
CASA's initiatives are being widely applauded, even moreso than the Coalition's $715 million package. The measures CASA has taken will have positive benefits in real terms, whereas the aviation industry's package is based on variable costs; savings in fuel excise and airways charges that weren't going to be incurred anyway. Parked aeroplanes use no fuel and flights not made don't have to pay airways charges. And whether or not GA was included in the scheme has still not been answered at the time of typing. In effect, not a lot has been done for any sector of aviation so far. The immediate future of GA depends largely on what the government does next with both relief packages and lockdown measures.
But we need to remember this: there is going to be a general aviation industry and community once the COVID-19 crisis is over because the passion that underpins GA will still be there. It's that passion that has constantly sent us all back to the regulatory wall to bang our heads against it, and it will drive us to revive our industry in the second half of this year. The sad thing is that we are likely to lose some soldiers along the way as inevitably not every company, aero club or organisation will be able to make it to GA's brave new world. When the shackles are off, we'll all be busting for a good long fly to a distant cafe somewhere and activity within the community will leap. Demand for avgas, headsets, books, whiz-wheels, EFBs, flying instructors and everything else that makes up our industry will return with a vengeance and as an industry we need to be ready for that to happen. It might be in two months; it might be in four months. The important thing is that we need to hang on to as much as we can to carry it forward not only for the rest of 2020, but for the years immediately ahead.
Australian Flying is preparing to do just that. We're setting in place measures to make sure we're there for all readers throughout whatever the immediate future brings. The magazine will continue to come out on time every two months as it has for decades. One concession that we've needed to make is the E-newsletter. Rather than coming out every Friday, the news feed will now arrive in your inbox once a fortnight staring mid April. News will, however, still reach the website as soon as it happens and we'll keep you connected through our Facebook page. The industry will go on and Australian Flying has long been a part of that industry.
May your gauges always be in the green,