Here’s the question of the day for a beleaguered Civil Aviation Safety Authority. Why does CASA tolerate for even another minute the regular carriage of passengers by air to Palm Island over 55 kilometres of open water without life jackets?

Is it because they are predominantly indigenous passengers or Torres Strait islanders and count for shit as seems to be the case in public administration in Far Northern Queensland?

Or is it because CASA doesn’t give a toss about enforcing the purpose or intent of air safety rules in remote and predominantly black communities?

Or is it more outright incompetence and indifference to its functions as laid out so clearly in the damning ICAO audit of the level of safety oversight in Australia that the government today insists is world class?

On 1 May the Angry Flyers Lounge on the Crikey blog Plane Talking carried this detailed complaint about unsafe practices by a certain operator. CASA promised to respond.

A week later CASA said that because the complaint was before its Complaints Commissioner, Michael Hart, it could not comment.

But CASA can act. It has a duty to intervene to protect public safety that doesn’t require any reference to a part heard issue before a complaints commissioner. It doesn’t matter if the air service complained about is in fact legal in some obscure way, or in gross violation of the rules. It doesn’t need to wait for Hart to complete his inquiry to order life jackets for passengers paying money to fly on an important regional route for a long distance over water.

Simple, decent, common sense is all that is needed.

What is it about FNQ that brings out the worst in transport safety public administration in this country?

On 7 May 2005 the Lockhart River crash killed all 15 people aboard a turbo prop flown by the now defunct Transair company. It was subsequently revealed in privileged testimony that CASA knew the operator was sub standard and in breach of regulations but took no effective action to remedy the situation, didn’t warn the public of the dangers it posed, and didn’t even acknowledge any responsibility to inform the public about unsafe operators.

On 15 October that year the Malu Sara, an immigration patrol boat, sank with the loss of all five people on board. The boat belonged to a fleet of vessels found to be of unseaworthy design before it went missing, and was never found following a search effort marred by indifference and incompetency.

There are signs of change in CASA’s approach to carrying out its obligations in FNQ and the rest of northern Australia. The new chief executive, John McCormick, has reversed a decision to close its Townsville office, and has ordered the creation of two other CASA offices in the north of the continent, with Broome considered the likely location for one of them.

Peter Fray

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