Civil Aviation Authority, Australian Transport Bureau, Susan McDonald comment ahead of Senate vote

FATAL: The wreckage of an Angel Flight plane that crashed at Mount Gambier in 2017. Pictures: Supplied
FATAL: The wreckage of an Angel Flight plane that crashed at Mount Gambier in 2017. Pictures: Supplied

A charity that flies sick children from regional areas to the city for crucial medical treatment has slammed two authorities for damaging its reputation.

In the last 10 years, Angel Flight has conducted close to 2000 flights in and out of Wagga to ensure residents can access crucial medical treatment.

Today, senators will be asked to vote on whether they should loosen the maintenance requirements for non-emergency medical flights, following an inquiry into a deadly plane crash in 2017 that claimed three lives.

What has happened so far?

In February, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority put forward a raft of proposals that Angel Flight claimed would "clip their wings".

Changes put forward included increasing minimum pilot hour requirements, which would bar some of the volunteers with lower hours, and requiring aircraft engines to be maintained to commercial charter standards, which could cost $85,000 or up to $120,000.

At the time, Wagga mother Linda Roesler said she would be devastated if the changes negatively affected Angel Flight.

ANGEL FLIGHT: Flashback to 2016, volunteer driver Patricia Clarke, Jarrod Roesler and Linda Roesler. Picture: Supplied

ANGEL FLIGHT: Flashback to 2016, volunteer driver Patricia Clarke, Jarrod Roesler and Linda Roesler. Picture: Supplied

"It's another barrier for accessing medical services regionally, and it's even worse for those further out west," she told The Daily Advertiser.

Then in August, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau released a report claiming the charity airline had had a fatal accident rate seven times higher than other private flights.

The ATSB investigation came after a pilot, and two passengers were killed when an Angel Flight service crashed at Mt Gambier in South Australia in June 2017.

At the time, the charity hit back at the claims and said it engaged two senior expert statisticians and an analyst, all of whom concluded that the rate was not significantly different than other private airlines.

The senate investigates

A Senate committee scrutinised the investigation into Angel Flight's safety record. The upper house inquiry found the charity's plane crash rate was unlikely to be higher than other private flights.

Senator Susan McDonald, the chair of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Senate Committee (RRAT), said she believed the proposals were "sound and reasonable".

"The first recommendation removes the provision for additional aeroplane maintenance requirements, which are beyond those required for airworthiness in the general aviation sector," she said.

"The second recommendation recommends clarification around what constitutes the 'operating crew' for a community service flight, particularly as this relates to additional pilots and mentoring arrangements."

When questioned why the recommendations were directed towards CASA rather than the ATSB, Senator McDonald said the scope of the inquiry was not to reinvestigate the ATSB investigation.

"The RRAT inquiry came about as industry was concerned that the recommendations from CASA did not reflect the ATSB findings," she said.

"The committee investigated the basis for the CASA instrument changes and not the substance of the ATSB investigation.

"Seeing some recent correspondence and speculation from the public, I have to say the scope of this inquiry was never to investigate the causes of the accident.

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'Do the right thing'

Angel Flight chief executive Majorie Pagani said the organisation welcomed the committee's report and hoped the ATSB would "do the right thing".

"They should withdraw it [their report] and start again and do it properly with experts," she said.

"The Senate will vote on Wednesday as to whether they will disallow the laws.

"I know that I am hopeful it will be disallowed because the committee decision was made with bipartisan support. Hopefully, the senators will take heed."

Ms Pagani said the reports from both the ATSB and the proposals from CASA had unfairly damaged the charity's reputation.

"Our passengers are committed," she said.

"Many say that we have saved their lives, their sanity, and we allow themselves the quality of life, but it has unfairly damaged our reputation and that always has a flow-on effect."

In 2008 Tyson Lindsay, 4, readies for his Angel Flight trip.

In 2008 Tyson Lindsay, 4, readies for his Angel Flight trip.

Ms Pagani added that neither CASA or the ATSB completed the due process in either regard.

"Neither of these companies understand the difficulties faced by these people," she said.

"What we say to the organisations is stop acting like bureaucracies and act genuinely," she said. "Act with fairness and justice which hasn't been done."

Focus to 'improve safety'

A spokesperson for the safety authority said it has a strong appreciation of the importance of community service flights to regional and remote communities.

"The changes were put in place to address identified safety issues so these communities can have an even higher level of confidence in the safety of community service flights," he said.

The spokesperson denied the allegation that CASA had circumvented the usual regulatory process earlier in the year for their proposal.

"The appropriate regulatory processes were followed to introduce these new community service flight requirements," he said.

"There was public consultation which was open for about six weeks.

"There were 233 responses to this consultation. In response to the consultation, CASA modified the community service flight requirements to significantly reduce costs compared to the initial proposals."

ATSB stands by findings

An ATSB spokesperson said the bureau stands behind its investigation that "found a different and elevated risk for community service flights operated on behalf of Angel Flight Australia".

"The data analysis in the ATSB's investigation was undertaken by experienced aviation safety data analysts and underwent extensive and robust peer review before publication," they said.

"That statistical analysis established that Angel Flight coordinated flights were almost certainly exposed to different operational conditions, compared to other private flights, with the potential for pilots to feel perceived or self-imposed pressures to complete their flights."

The spokesperson added the ATSB supports the important role the community service flight sector plays in facilitating access to medical appointments and treatments in major cities for regional and rural Australians.

"It is essential that controls for risk for community service flights operated on behalf of Angel Flight Australia are strengthened to prevent further accidents and further loss of life," they said.

This story Senate readies to vote on aviation rules - and Angel Flight's future first appeared on The Daily Advertiser.