The only tenable conclusion that can be made from the Pel-Air disclosures on 4 Corners last night is that the performances of CASA and the ATSB are so bad that they constitute a threat to public safety in Australia.

It is fortunate that those disclosures related to the ditching near Norfolk Island of an air ambulance flight in which all six people survived, and not the deaths of hundreds of people in the crash of an airliner operator by an Australian airline that neither organisation dares to touch.

Under background documents Pel-Air responds to the hitherto confidential audit of its operations as follows.

That response shows that Pel-Air is in total denial as to the substance of the audit’s findings, which are also posted in the same location.

Here are some additional extracts from an audit that CASA doesn’t want the public to be able to access when it exercises any choice in air services, or in this case, that responsible state authorities might exercise in the awarding of contracts for aerial ambulance work.

What is extraordinary about the above conclusion is the reference to ‘deficiencies … not identified or rectified, which is indicative of broader organisation failures.’

This was not the first Pel-Air audit conducted by CASA. Its previous audit is understood to have failed to identify these grievous issues, and CASA ought to be required to release that audit and explain whether Pel-Air fell into sudden and near disastrous decline in terms of standards in a short period of time, or was given a free pass for reasons that it ought to be compelled to disclose to an appropriate independent inquiry.

What on earth was going on in CASA, as the safety regulator and enforcer, to allow a situation more akin to a struggling and corrupt third world economy to prevail and permit such deficiencies to exist in an Australian operation?

Record keeping is a fundamental obligation on a properly licensed air operator. As a Level One nation in terms of its air safety performance, we are tolerating level two incompetency in a carrier.

At the very least, CASA ought to have used the same courage it displayed in grounding Tiger Airways as an imminent threat to safety, and served it with a show cause notice.

Pel-Air’s failings were many, and sudden, given the previous audit. Was that audit a rubber stamp exercise, or just the application of craven incompetency? Answers are needed, and ought to be demanded by the responsible minister, or a urgent and high powered and tightly focused parliamentary inquiry.

CASA, which had been trusted to make a comprehensive assessment of its application for an AOC, concedes in this late 2009 audit that Pel-Air didn’t even have a policy about obstacle avoidance, which is very relevant at some of the air strips likely to be used for medical flights, and always a critical factor in calculating operational performance in the event of an engine failure at a point where an aircraft can no longer stop before reaching the end of a runway.

The Pel-Air incident ought to be a lightning rod for immediate action by federal parliament, with some remedial action in terms of transparency as a legislative priority followed by an appropriate committee hearing and ministerial intervention at the top of CASA, the air safety regulator, and the ATSB, the air safety investigator.

CASA and the ATSB ought not be responding to this report, but to a parliament seized with the seriousness of these failings in the public administration of air safety.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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