Seething anger by the relatives of the victims of the 7 May 2005 crash of a Transair flight at North Queensland’s Lockhart River lies at the heart of the snap inquiry into the Civil Aviation Safety Authority sprung by the government this morning. But it will almost certainly go much further.

The terms of reference and reporting date of 9 July for the Senate Inquiry will not have caught the aggrieved parties by surprise, who have pushed hard for an investigation ever since they were confronted by an inquest by Queensland Coroner, Michael Barnes, in which he was ably assisted by Ian Harvey QC who is CASA’s leading counsel in many legal matters.

That inquest failed to deal with the core concerns of the families of the 15 people who died when a pilot CASA admitted knowing was incompetent slammed the turbo-prop into a hill in driving rain.

CASA chief executive officer Bruce Byron was subsequently grilled by a Senate Committee last year over the regulator’s inaction over the unsafe operations of the subsequently defunct indigenous community air operator Transair, including his failure to keep the public informed.

Byron went on to release a document in which he argued that CASA’s role was to encourage air operators to be safe as distinct from enforcing the rules and performing the duties that are the regulator’s obligations under the act.

However Byron’s tenure at CASA has been blighted by a series of questionable decisions, including allowing Jetstar to self-investigate what turned out to be an incompetent missed approach to Melbourne Airport last July in fog, in which neither the pilots nor the airline showed any understanding of the gravity of the situation.

That particular Jetstar incident become the focus of a current investigation by the ATSB two months after the event, following an expose in Crikey and the on-line newsletter of Aviation Business magazine.

The CASA inquiry comes at a time when airlines world wide are turning to the costs of compliance with safety regulations including pilot duty and rest hours in an attempt to cut costs in markets where some are expected to go broke.

However, the difference between Australia and to a degree the US, and the EU, is that there is no countervailing and pedantic enforcement of the safety rules, nor any significant risk of sudden audits or inspections by the safety regulator itself.

Will CASA be asked to do its job, and do it transparently? That is the real issue that the proponents of this inquiry hope to get answered in the affirmative.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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