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Senator HEFFERNAN – As Senator Abetz, who is in the chamber, would know, I am not here to talk about Gunns in Tasmania and I am not here to talk about the High Court; I am here to talk about this report. I support the chair’s remarks on the report and the enthusiasm which the committee took to that report. One of the great difficulties for the flying public is to be confident that it is a safe environment. One of the precursors of that is for us to have confidence in the Civil Aviation Safety Authority as the supervising authority.
This report rings some warning bells for the continuing relationship between air safety and viable airlines. One of the risks for all airlines is that, in the competitive market of discounted airfares, the airline, to protect its financial capacity to fly, may endanger its physical capacity to fly – in other words, if they cut back the maintenance enough the planes eventually start falling out of the sky. To that end, there have been some concerns raised by the Australian public and certainly by people in the industry that discounted maintenance could be a problem. So there needs to be confidence in the board to supervise maintenance of aircraft in places like Malaysia, and I intend to table a couple of documents to that effect in a moment.
The committee is very much of the view that we need to have a small board overseeing CASA. This would bring to account some of what is seen as unaccountability for the inconsistency of treatment by CASA officers in various regions. There does not seem to be harmonisation across the regions and, as the chairman said, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association of Australia raised that issue. The report says:
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association … criticised response times and lack of assistance from CASA senior management. At the same time, AOPAA emphasised that there are many knowledgeable and helpful CASA staff. AOPAA told the Committee:
‘… it takes an inordinate length of time to get a response from CASA senior management and sometimes the responses we get are, shall we say, less than helpful. Whereas, when we deal with staff who are at the coalface, we find them to be very helpful. We get on and we get results.’
Then concerns were raised about who these people are that CASA sends out to supervise operators and keep flying safe. As the chairman said, the turnover of staff in CASA is, to say the least, unusually high. Whether that is personality based or career based I am unaware, but CASA informed the committee:
… the issue of training is something that we are aware of. It is probably the last major part of the change program to really nail down. I reiterate the point that we do have a lot of new people who have current technical qualifications.
I have to say, we were given examples where CASA people came out to supervise some technical aspects of maintenance where the person who was doing the maintaining obviously knew more than the person who was doing the supervising. That was a problem. The Aerial Agriculture Association raised the same problem of inconsistency in the interpretation and application of CASA policy. They are a vital little flying force out there in the bush, but they see themselves having less relevance and getting rougher treatment sometimes from the CASA people. They are issues that emphasise the case, as the chairman has said. The committee recommended:
… introducing a small board of up to five members to provide enhanced oversight and strategic direction for CASA –
as well as bringing to account, as it were, the capacity of people who have a complaint to go to the board, which can then go and say ‘How do you do’ to the senior staff at CASA, whereas in the present arrangement someone out in the bush, down the track or in a city who has a problem can sometimes, because of the blockers that are in the system, never get access to senior enough staff to meaningfully put their problems.
The great challenge for the future of flying is for the airlines at some point in time to understand that they are actually going to have to tell the flying public the real cost of flying. Because of discounting, the real cost of flying at the moment is in many ways not being reflected, which means there is less emphasis on repairs and maintenance and more on discounting fares. I think that is going to be a serious problem in the future, unless somehow the flying public understands that there are certain set costs in the system. Paying for your lunch on the plane is token compared to some of the serious maintenance that has to go on. To that end, we need to protect our brand names. Qantas is just one of the best branded entities on the planet, and we need to protect Qantas at all costs.
By the way, I have to declare two things. I am an old pilot. I got my pilot’s licence in 1965 … I am a pilot and, I have to say, my daughter is a proud employee of Qantas.
This is a serious problem of protecting Australia’s aviation industry and protecting the brand name of our major flyers. There are several good airlines and there are certainly some good regional airlines, but the public needs to know that the people who are doing the supervising are up to the task. To that end, I would like to table two paper clippings which I have shown the government and the Leader of the Opposition.