Rural communities around Australia are outraged at a proposal by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority to introduce a new minimum safety standard for community service flights that have the potential to ground Angel Flight Australia.
The charity coordinates non-emergency flights to assist country people to access specialist medical treatment that would otherwise be unavailable because of vast distance and high travel costs, utilising volunteer pilots.
Angel Flight’s CEO, Marjorie Pagani, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association of Australia, Queensland’s opposition spokesman for volunteers, Lachlan Millar, and Kennedy MP, Bob Katter, have all condemned the proposal, which they say is a gross discrimination against rural people.
All have demanded that the federal government intervene to prevent the new standards from coming into being.
“What CASA is saying is that I can fly you to Toowoomba any day of the week to go shopping but as soon as you say you’re going there for medical purposes, I’m not qualified to fly you,” Ms Pagani said. “It defies belief.”
She said the proposal, which related to licensing requirements, minimum pilot experience and maintenance-related enhancements, showed CASA had lost confidence in its own licencing system, under which the charity’s pilots and aircraft operated.
“Why else would they place these restrictions on lawfully licenced pilots,” she said.
“The long and short of it is, why are we suddenly unsafe if we want to help a rural person?
“There is no nation in the world that restricts a pilot’s licence according to the needs of their passengers.”
Further unleashing her dismay at the potential the changes would have on what has become an essential service, conducting 4000 trips a year, Ms Pagani was critical of the way CASA had apparently circumvented the usual regulatory process, and what she said was the “invention” of a community service flight category.
She described the standards as a “grab bag” of restrictions that were unrelated to the two fatal accidents, in 2011 and 2017, that are understood to be at the crux of the changes.
She said any improvement to the service would come from safety education, which she had been working with CASA on for 18 months, not aircraft standards.
One of the changes proposed would increase minimum pilot hour requirements, which would preclude some of the volunteers with lower hours.
Another requires aircraft engines to be maintained to commercial charter standards, which could cost $85,000 or more.
In outlining its need for consultation, CASA said a regulatory baseline would provide clarity regarding an appropriate minimum safety standard.
It anticipated most pilots currently conducting community safety flights would meet the proposed new standards.
While CASA said Angel Flight pilots didn’t operate under the safety umbrella of an Air Operator’s Certificate, which commercial operators work under, Ms Pagani said users were comprehensively briefed on procedures and made aware of all aspects, including watching a video, before they were introduced to a pilot.
Benjamin Morgan, the executive director of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association of Australia, accused CASA of highlighting two tragic accidents, both found to have been the result of pilot error, from over 46,000 successful flights, to manipulate public perception of the service.
“The elephant in the room is aviation safety, which should be addressed by communication, collaboration and education, not by ramming enforcement regulations through that only cover the backside of a bureaucrat if something happens,” he said. “We have to not overreact to a situation in a way that means we can no longer provide a service.”
Calls for intervention
Mr Morgan called on every Australian to contact their local MP and demand they oppose the changes, saying the next group to be affected could be private individuals transporting people to doctor’s appointments in their cars.
“Will they demand they have motor car engine overhauls or a higher degree of driver training?”
One politician who has called on the federal government, particularly transport minister Michael McCormack. to intervene is Queensland opposition spokesman on emergency services and volunteers, Lachlan Millar.
“I am outraged that an unelected bureaucrat can ground the charity, Angel Flight, with a flick of a pen and no federal parliamentary scrutiny,” he said.
“The Civil Aviation Authority’s plan will ground 80 per cent of the volunteer pilots who take rural and remote patients for non-emergency treatments such as dialysis.
“This plan will cause real pain to rural people. Angel Flight pilots are everyday heroes. They make a major difference and actually help governments by reducing the cost of delivering health care in the bush.
“I am publicly asking the deputy Prime Minister and federal transport minister, Michael McCormack, to intervene and fix this.”
He was joined by KAP leader and federal Member for Kennedy, Bob Katter, in calling out the Civil Aviation Safety Authority for what he called their latest show of incompetence, which he said could kill Angel Flight.
“One of Dick Smith’s finest moments was his attack upon CASA; CASA has downed more planes than the Red Baron,” Mr Katter said, adding the authority had repeatedly displayed its ineptitude.
“To take Angel Flight out of the skies is to remove the mantle of safety put there by Reverend John Flynn and his Royal Flying Doctor Service, and I speak with great passion because both my father and his brother died at the hands of that Australian tyrant – the tyranny of distance.
“When you protect your precious statistics, that conciliatory is costing us lives.
“It is quite clear to me these very generous self-sacrificing pilot-owners cannot afford to take the risks of CASA prosecutions – the safety Nazis – and we will lose this wonderful service.”
Mr Katter said he had contacted the minister for transport and demanded his immediate intervention and asked rural chambers of commerce, flyers, clubs and councils to join the fight on this issue.
The public consultation period, launched after federal parliament rose in December, closed on Thursday.
CASA and transport minister, Michael McCormack, have responded to the concerns, along with federal opposition transport spokesman, Anthony Albanese.