By either complete coincidence or shrewdly calculated timing, a lot is happening to air safety standards during the “caretaker mode” of government in the run-up to the election. The latest is the planned closure two days before the poll of the Flightwatch auxiliary air traffic information network for smaller general aviation aircraft that need to fly through the same space as airliners.

Dick Smith is threatening to sue Airservices Australia over the changes. His media statement and his letter to the air traffic authority involve complex and important issues. Whether Smith is right or wrong, the open debate and analysis that the law provides for isn’t taking place.

Why not? These changes are being steamrolled into place without any of the consultation required under the regulations, at a time when the Minister for Transport, Mark Vaile, can use “caretaker mode” as a cover for avoiding argument. No one will notice a thing, unless the loss of this service results in loss of life.

This latest tussle is indicative of the urge of government to keep air safety scrutiny out of the public eye. The most spectacular instance of this was the Civil Aviation Safety Authority’s bland assertion that it was entirely appropriate for Jetstar to self-examine an incident in which one of its A320s flew a stuffed up missed approach to Melbourne Airport on 21 July.

We now know what Jetstar had no idea at that time how seriously close to disaster more than 138 passengers and crew had been flown, or that it has flight standards issues which are being pursued by the independent Australian Transport Safety Bureau investigation.

Read that report carefully. Look at the pretty diagrams. This is an insight into a dysfunctional safety culture that needs fixing without delay.

Election mode has also provided a cone of ministerial silence over some incredible pronouncements by Bruce Byron, the chief executive officer of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, in a booklet on safety management released recently at the Safeskies forum.

Some gems: ”Basically CASA’s role is to attempt to influence the safety outcomes that somebody else delivers.” Attempt!

And: “The consequences of a less prescriptive regulatory environment is a greater need for the business, particularly the CEO, to manage safety.”

This astonishing document defies not just the many speeches by the transport minister promising more vigilant, more prescriptive, tougher, no nonsense regulation of safety, if tries to redefine the role of CASA as only “attempting to influence” the very people it is supposed to regulate.

Since when did parliament repeal the acts investing CASA with rigorous responsibilities and replacing them with a mandate to only “attempt to influence”?

Garuda, we are sorry. How dare the likes of Alexander Downer babble worthless platitudes about the unsafe practices of Indonesian pilots when Australia is in secretive and determined retreat from anything resembling effective aviation safety administration?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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