The Regional Aviation Association of Australia (RAAA) has launched its Regional Aviation Policy – a timely pre-election call to arms against ongoing government antipathy towards an industry the association calls “an integral part in Australia’s development”.
Launched by RAAA chairman Jeff Boyd at the association’s annual parliamentary summit in Canberra on Tuesday, the policy seeks to garner some political interest at the very least – and preferably support – for the regional aviation sector.
“In recent years there has been a dramatic decline in regional airline services,” the policy headlines, adding: “Of particular concern is the fact that significant cost increases are due to Australian government policy and regulation. The current financial year will see many millions of dollars added directly to RAAA members’ bottom lines due to three government policy initiatives alone.
“On the government’s own figures from the BITRE, essential regional air services have been in serious decline for over two decades and negative policy initiatives such as these only serve to increase the downward trend. Government needs to develop policy that can slow or reverse this trend and guarantee regional Australia, outside of the major tourist and mining centres, the essential air services needed for its continued economic and social well-being and future prosperity,” the policy continued.
Telling among the policy’s narrative were two statistics that ably demonstrate the industry’s decline – and thus the accessibility to, from and within regional communities.
“BITRE statistics show that over the period 1984 to 2008 the number of regional airports served by scheduled airlines fell from 278 to 138, with the steepest decline on low density routes. The number of airlines serving regional airports fell from 53 to 27 in the same period.”
But Minister Albanese’s comments, delivered at the summit by parliamentary secretary Catherine King, suggest there is no problem.
“Over the five year period until 2010, passenger movements at regional airports rose from almost 17 million to 22.5 million,” King said. “In the last two years alone that number has jumped by a further two million passengers. The number of regional airports receiving passengers is now 171, well above the figures of 2007.”
Not that the election campaign has officially started yet, apparently, King added: “Clearly the downward trend we saw in the Howard years has been well as truly reversed. This has not happened by accident. Since 2007 the present federal government has contributed $75 million to improve regional aviation infrastructure.” Among a credible list of contributions were improvements to remote and regional airports and airfields that do legitimately improve accessibility.
“Aviation in this country is healthy and strong. Behind you all the way has been this federal government. Nobody can match this government’s track record in supporting regional aviation,” King concluded.
Clearly there is a difference of view about the state of regional aviation in Australia.
For all the opposing rhetoric between the government and the regional aviation sector, seizing on the upcoming election, the RAAA said pointedly: “The RAAA calls on the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport and the Shadow Minister to state their positions with regard to these issues so that regional communities affected can make informed decisions during the upcoming elections as well as hold the government accountable for promises made during the election campaign.”
Indeed there could be no better time to turn on the pressure as the tide of political aviation policy apathy washes over the industry. The RAAA joins the unison of other industry sectors, including the Australian Aviation Associations Forum, a cross-industry association also endeavouring to instigate political interest in aviation matters, and the airlines themselves as they attempt to awaken the political siesta hanging over Sydney Airport.
What is still missing from the government and opposition is a coherent aviation policy and a robust, pragmatic and workable bureaucracy to support the sustainability of the industry. This is the key issue raised by the RAAA.
It is not surprising, then, that the first item in the policy seeks to address what the RAAA says is “a lack of meaningful consultation with the regional aviation industry” on matters of recent government policy and regulation formulation.
“Examples of this are the carbon tax levied on fuel for regional operators, the withdrawal of the Enroute Rebate Scheme, the increased CASA fuel levy for domestic operators and the proposed new rules for Fatigue Risk Management Systems. Of concern are broken promises when policy positions are promulgated such as the failure to produce any replacement for the Enroute Rebate Scheme as promised in the Aviation White Paper,” the RAAA noted in its policy.
Specifically on the Enroute Rebate Scheme (ERS), the RAAA said: “In 2009 the Aviation White Paper noted that the smaller regional air services were in serious decline and recognised the need to retain the Enroute Rebate Scheme in one form or another. It gave a commitment to introduce an equivalent subsidy system to support services to the more remote destinations, commencing 1 July 2010. The Government broke its promise and this scheme never materialised. However the need for some form of assistance still remains.”
Of the more bizarre government initiatives is a push by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) that stands to undermine the very principles of the promotion of safety. In 2012 the authority announced its intention to access voluntary and mandatory reports filed by operators to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB).
While at first glance it may seem reasonable that the safety regulator has routine access to such information, the basis of a sound safety culture is voluntary reporting to benefit the overall improvement of safety within the industry – self-improvement and the ‘just culture’.
CASA’s initial pitch when announcing the initiative was that it would enable it to take actions against individuals or entities as it deemed appropriate – in short, punitive actions against people seeking to improve safety standards through voluntary reporting. This would have the effect of burying safety issues for fear of action being taken.
The proposed changes are also at odds with safety management philosophy anywhere else in the world.
CASA has said it is not for the purpose of taking punitive action, however, the RAAA and its industry counterparts are not convinced and through the recently-launched policy said: “The recent moves by CASA to fully access reports to the ATSB through proposed changes to the TSI Act and amendments to the draft CASR 119 illustrate the inherent conflict in having the safety enforcer in charge of the regulations.
“CASA’s view that any action taken as a result of receiving these reports is not punitive or disciplinary is not shared by the industry. Such a move compromises Just Culture and would inevitably erode the healthy reporting culture that is so essential to a successful safety management system. Current practice allows some sharing of information between the ATSB and CASA where it is necessary for maintaining safety standards. There is no need to extend this, particularly when it is at the risk of compromising Safety Management Systems.
More broadly, the RAAA noted: “Policy has been developed for political and bureaucratic reasons, in isolation from industry knowledge and expertise. Government policy has shown no real understanding of its impact on the regional aviation industry and the regional communities served by it. This situation can be improved with an increased focus on regional aviation and more meaningful consultation. Realistic policies are needed that foster and promote improved regional aviation services.”
It was perhaps ironic that these statements were made at parliament house in Canberra to around 100 attendees, the second such event after a successful debut summit last year.
But the value of the inaugural event diminished as the year progressed to a point now, when not only is a second summit timely given the pending election, it has seemingly become necessary in the face of what is strongly perceived as an ongoing aviation policy vacuum in Canberra.
The regional aviation sector has become as battle hardened as it has become battle weary. But the looming election provides a sound opportunity for reinforcing the value of the industry to economic and social prosperity. It provides an equally sound opportunity to embarrass the government and opposition for the neglect they have shown regional aviation.
Perhaps the RAAA, supported by the like-minded outcries from its colleague organisations, can save the government from embarrassing itself on aviation policy – or perhaps the lack of it.