An abridged version of this article was first published in The Australian newspaper on 4 October 2019.
I have heard on many occasions from different people that the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) is killing General Aviation (GA) with its new, onerous rules. Really? Is that a valid claim?
Back in the day, Cessna and Piper were building thousands of aircraft every year. Cessnas and Pipers rolled off the production lines in their thousands - all nice and shiny and new. Fuel was cheap. The airlines served very few places and for those they did, the fares were exorbitant. Surface transport was non-existent. The heavy end of town formed a much smaller proportion of aviation, so GA was king around the major cities, out in the regional areas and farms. Landing fees at airports were low or non-existent. Aviation was glamorous and people aspired to be pilots. Many (like me) were prepared to dedicate the months of studying, the hours of flying and the thousands of dollars to become pilots. Some would then rent an aircraft when they needed one but there were many who would pay the princely sums to own and operate an aircraft.
In those days, if someone wanted to travel from, let’s say, Mackay to Brisbane it would have taken 10 – 12 hours by car. For a day’s work, two nights in Brisbane would be required with two long days of driving. So, if they were a pilot, they didn’t drive.
This same person could fly a general aviation, single-engine, light aircraft. The driving at each end would be about the same (from home to Mackay airport and Brisbane or Archerfield to destination). Let’s assume an hour to prep the aircraft and file a flight plan, and then 4 to 5 hours flying. The same journey could be done with only one night in Brisbane - Two half-day’s business and home the second day. If you loved GA, you could make the case.
Today, the killer blow to GA today is the competition. And the competition is coming from all quarters.
Inflation has changed the value of the dollar over the years but, making the comparison in today’s dollars, 8 - 10 hours for the Mackay-Brisbane trip in a light aircraft plus landing fees? Between $2,000 and $3,000. However, the same trip on a Low Cost Carrier (LCC) airline, return, is $110. Furthermore, you’re not flying the aircraft so there’s no fatigue to worry about, they rarely divert due to weather, you can have an alcoholic drink if you want and you can get some work done on the flight. So, if you are serious about your business costs you’re not going to use GA. Competition from LCCs is significant and there’s more competition, literally, coming down the road. Cars.
The old Pacific Highway from Sydney to Brisbane was bad. A single-lane road, lots of towns without by-passes, everybody pressing on to overtake into the face of the oncoming traffic. Nightmare. Now it is largely dual-carriageway – just stick the car in “cruise” and enjoy the journey. Same for Sydney to Melbourne. The cars are safer and more comfortable than they were, with all sorts of entertainment to keep the driver and passengers occupied. The cost from Sydney to Port Macquarie and back would be about $280 in a car. In a light aircraft, you’d be looking at a bill upwards of $1,000. In addition, it could take nearly as long to drive to Bankstown, prep the aircraft, fly to Port Macquarie and get a taxi to destination. You’d have to be an enthusiast to fly because you can’t make the case on cost. And nowadays the aircraft could easily be 40 years old. Factor-in the potential delays from inclement weather and the stress that dodgy weather induces to “press on” to get to the meeting or get home for the kids’ school play. Driving is so much easier and more reliable. Furthermore, pretty soon we won’t even have to drive the car – it’ll drive itself. Cars have become another serious competitor to GA.
In days gone by, there were very few airlines and fewer destinations served. GA took up the slack carrying light freight like cheques and urgent, high-value items. Consider the boom in on-line shopping. How much of that goes by air in a light aircraft? Next to nothing. And who uses cheques now? I received one recently for a refund on my car rego from NSW and I had to go to the bank to ask what to do!
Technology is not just taking over in the financial area – another example is video conference calls – why fly in a light aircraft or even an airliner, for that matter, if you don’t have to? Just sit at your desk and have your meeting on-line.
GA is not just about travelling from A to B. Consider surveys of roads, powerlines, pipelines, farm crops and feral animals. Before I left the Civil Aviation Safety Authority over 3 years ago we had already approved operators of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (drones) to conduct “Beyond Visual Line of Sight” surveys of roads, powerlines and feral animals. I don’t know the relative cost of a drone to an aircraft with a human pilot but, for the simpler work within visual line of sight like aerial photos, the drone is orders of magnitude cheaper. It’s inevitable that drones will increasingly take work away from GA.
When I was young I would drive out to the local airports just to watch the aircraft. I was not alone – the boundary fence was lined with people. I couldn’t wait to fly - I gained my PPL at age 18 in 1971. I just learned to fly for the fun of it. Where are all the youngsters who just want to fly for the fun and love of it now? Leaning on the fence watching the aircraft? No, they have other things to do with their time. My kids are now mid-thirties and enjoyed coming flying with me. However, they didn’t want to make the investment in time and money to get a licence. They like to play golf occasionally but won’t make the commitment in time and money to join a golf club. They have bungee-jumped, climbed mountains, rafted, mountain-biked, scuba-dived, road cycled, parachute-jumped, skied, jogged and competed in triathlons. So it goes, they like to try things but they don’t want to specialise. And for many others, there are also the attractions of games consoles, computers, tablets and smart phones.
Recently, I was told the average age of the members of a local flying club was in excess of 60. What will happen to that club in a few years when all its members have lost their medicals or are dead? What is that club doing to sustain itself? If, by some chance, CASA relaxes its rules, do they really think the people will come flooding back into GA? I don’t. The attitude and culture of younger people has changed. CASA isn’t killing GA, it’s dying of old age!
In addition to all of the above there other challenges being dealt with by GA: cost and availability of Avgas, increasingly old increasingly expensive aircraft and increasing rents for office and hangarage space. Furthermore, the bigger aerodromes and airports are trying to drive out GA because there’s no money in it.
If CASA is introducing new regulations, the real question to be answered is, “Are the new regulations necessary?” According to the ATSB (Aviation Occurrence Statistics, 2008 to 2017), the number of departures in 2008 for GA (which does not include Recreational Aviation) was 1,949,000 and in 2016 was 1,920,000 (ATSB numbers exclude medical transport and gliding); a negligible decline. However, according to the ATSB, “flying hours are a more useful measure of exposure for general aviation because of the higher risk of an accident outside of approach and landing and take-off phases of flight.” The hours flown by GA in 2008 were 1,439,000 and in 2016 were 1,301,000 – a decline of 138k over 9 years – say 1% per annum. Hours flown in some categories has declined significantly such as flying training, private/business and sport activity, whereas aerial work has increased.
The ATSB’s figures show the total accident rate, per hours flown, for GA operations are nine times as likely to have an accident compared to commercial air transport operations. Incidentally, Recreational Aviation operations are twice as likely to have an accident as GA.
When it comes to fatalities, the ATSB states, “The fatal accident rate, per hours flown, indicates general aviation operations are around fifteen times more likely to experience a fatal accident than commercial air transport operations.” Again, Recreational Aviation is double GA.
How many people were killed in GA in this same 9-year period? 206. In risk terms, does the general public tolerate this rate of fatalities? Yes. I make this statement on the basis that the media is not full of cries for CASA to do more. Or even, anything! 23 people being killed in GA every year is tolerable to the Australian general public. For comparison, there were 380 people killed on the roads in NSW in 2016 (Transport for NSW, Centre for Road Safety). Yes, that was 380 people, in one year, in one state.
In answer to the question, “Are the new regulations necessary?” In risk terms and tolerability to most of Australian society, probably not. However, it should come as no surprise to anybody that the Civil Aviation Act requires CASA, “…to promote the development and improvement of the system.” So, if you were CASA and you saw that the accident rate for GA was nine times that of commercial air transport and the fatality rate was fifteen times that of commercial air transport and you were required to make improvements to the system, where would you be looking?
If you agree that GA declining by 1% per annum is GA being killed, then, what is doing the killing? I think CASA gets the blame because CASA is just a soft target. It’s easier to blame CASA than it is to do what may be necessary to help GA survive and thrive, which, I accept, may be very hard indeed in the current climate.
CASA may be a contributory factor in the gradual demise of GA but GA must look to the changing world around it for the main reasons people no longer choose to fly in light aircraft. The leaders in GA must stop wishing for the good old days to return and hoping that things will change if they complain bitterly enough. If they want GA to thrive they must work even harder to encourage a new generation of potential pilots to come in through the door.
The aviation environment has changed enormously since the 1960s and 70s and, I’m afraid, it will get increasingly difficult for GA. Concepts and technology already in use such as video-calling, drones and ride-sharing will proliferate further and technology not yet considered will arrive to make life even harder for GA. Taking a pop at soft targets like CASA won’t change things for GA – the challenges already here and those coming quickly round the corner are inexorable. Competition from a wide variety of sources will either drive GA to improve and thrive or will kill it.
Peter Cromarty is a former air traffic controller and pilot. He spent 27 years as a safety regulator of ATM/CNS, airspace and aerodromes.
View his Linked In profile.