There are unconfirmed claims that the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) is about to start fining the big airlines like Qantas and Virgin Blue for regulatory breaches.

While no-one among the carriers, or their Minister, or CASA was able to discuss the issue this morning, our sources insist variously that it is under serious consideration or close to implementation in the post Lockhart River crash report environment.

Given the evidence of safety lapses in the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) report released this morning into the May 2004 disaster which killed 15 people, the operator Transair might have been driven out of business by a penalise-and-publish policy on non-compliance with internationally recognised safety obligations long before the accident happened — except for one glaring problem.

Transair was being allowed to operate legally at below some of the important safety and navigational standards that Australia has signed up for through its membership of the International Civil Aviation Organisation. CASA’s own inspectors were not given the “guidance” required to fully understand or identify safety issues within Transair.

The kindest thing that can be said about the situation identified by the ATSB is that it makes remote community aviation standards in Australia resembles those of Indonesia.

Transair’s turbo-prop Metroliner slammed into a mountain while under the control of two pilots who were attempting an unstable, read that as “less than professional”, GPS (global positioning system) bad weather approach to the Lockhart River strip. GPS approaches are unforgiving if an error is made in interpreting the distance from landing, and there is no visual contact with the field or nearby terrain.

Their use involves a continual investment in pilot standards and a culture of cross checking of data and co-operative positional awareness in the cockpit, which was non-existent in Transair.

CASA, unlike the FAA in the US or the major European safety agencies, has never fined a major Australian carrier for anything, although there is a prosecution of Qantas underway for an incident in which one of its jets took off from Launceston without the runway lights switched on.

And it’s certainly not because Qantas or Virgin Blue are 100% perfect. Instead of being fined and named, it has until now been a matter of “consultation”, all hush-hush and out of view of the public.

The public record of FAA fines reveals that some of the very best airlines in the US, including those with hundreds of jets in their fleets, and who have either never had a fatal crash, or not had one for decades, are often fined for leaving tools in the wrong places, failing to keep maintenance or training records up to date, breaching navigation rules, or fitting the wrong fuse to cabin emergency lighting systems. The airlines accept a system which publicly identifies the failure of employees to discharge their professional duties as reinforcing their commitment to safety.

If real enforcement of air safety is part of the CASA response to the massive expansion of domestic aviation and its responsibilities, the era of nudge and wink over big airline misdemeanors should be over.

Peter Fray

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