Compare the United States and Australia. Two large countries almost the same size in land area (Alaska excluded), pioneered by frontier people of European stock, allies in six wars, and both passionately committed to democracy and a bicameral form of government. But Australia has a small population of only 20 million people compared with 300 million in the United States. Australia is its own continent with low plateau and desert topography. Unlike in the United States, where the Rockies annually generate great volumes of precipitation, which eventually become deep, quenching rivers, Australia's highest peak is just 7,300 feet high; water is a scant commodity in the land Down Under.
Both countries are highly dependent on civil aviation and enjoy a proud legacy of its development. Although Americans invented and perfected flight, Australian pioneers such as Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith, first to fly the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea, recognized flight as an effective weapon against the tyranny of distance. Sir Hudson Fysh, a veteran of World War I, returned home from the war and in 1920 formed Qantas (Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Limited) as a regional, bush airline with war-surplus aircraft. Today, Qantas is the national carrier of Australia, the oldest airline in the English-speaking world, with an enviable reputation for service and safety.
But how does general aviation compare in Australia? Unlike crowded Europe — and given the big and mostly sunny skies of the region — Australia is surely a pilot's paradise. But if you ask most Australian GA pilots about that statement, they would vehemently disagree. Australian GA pilots feel that they are the pariahs in a system that favors the airlines and the "big end of town." This is not an isolated sentiment. A contentious attitude permeates every conversation when you raise the subject of the coexistence of GA with the airlines in Australia's shared national airspace in a system gone wrong.
What has caused this and how did this bifurcation come to be?
Unlike the United States, which came to aviation and designed regulations with a commercial purpose, Australia used military procedure as the basis of its foundation.
Adapting British standards, the system evolved over time in a rarefied environment of foreboding distances and limited resources. Sparse population, a disparate group of pilots, and challenging missions all made it difficult to develop a system with a critical mass. Even today, Australia, an advanced, modern society, has less than 33 percent of the nation covered by low-level radar, only 26 control towers, and just 300 paved runways (compared with 5,174 in the United States).
Is it any wonder then that fierce political battles are frequently fought between special-interest groups and big commercial enterprises over access and airspace? The results are a heavily regulated industry, an agonizing bureaucracy, and a system favoring the airlines. Increasingly, Australian GA is being strangled by red tape, decreased operational freedoms, and mounting fees for every aspect of flying including training, licensing, security, and maintenance.
In 1995 the Australian Civil Aviation Authority was split into two government bodies — CASA (Civil Aviation Safety Authority), with its primary function being to conduct the safety regulation of civil air operations in Australia and the operation of Australian aircraft overseas, and Airservices Australia, which assumed responsibility for airspace management, aeronautical information, radio navaids, and airport rescue and firefighting. Demand for aviation services reached its peak; the government instituted what we term in the United States "user fees." The rallying cry was "user pays, user says." But this promise was not to be. Increasingly, more and more costs crept into the lives of aircraft owners and GA pilots, and their voices went mostly unheard.
Then the Australian government sold off the nation's airports. Private operators, municipalities, and developers moved in to cannibalize the land or impose steep fee increases for airport services and hangar space, sometimes retroactively. As an example, Sydney, the nation's largest city, with a population of approximately 4 million, has three airports for GA and these are now in serious danger. Compare this with the Los Angeles Basin, with a considerably larger population, but where at least 15 airports actively serve GA and related interests. Towered Australian airports charge movement fees, airport owners charge landing fees, some airport owners charge for shooting GPS approaches (that is, for the privilege of intercepting the free signal off orbiting U.S. satellites over the airspace), and at one airport, additional proprietary charges also are levied for the use of its own ILS. Combine these costs with en route navigation charges and it all starts to add up.
Navigation charges are levied by Airservices Australia based on the aircraft's maximum takeoff weight and distance traveled. To collect these fees an aircraft's tail number is billed when a flight plan is filed and the flight completed. At nontowered fields, most airports in Australia, CTAFs (common traffic advisory frequencies) are monitored and the owner is billed the respective fees. Sometimes enterprising Aussie pilots find creative ways around paying fees by using another aircraft's tail number or by not making the required calls. Some shoot instrument approaches in marginal conditions without advising the authorities or dangerously push the minimums and compromise safety to save paying fees. There are strict penalties for breaking the law. Any breach of Australian aviation law is administered under the criminal code. Over time, conscientious administrators and government lawyers have been busy filling the books with new laws and regulations. A CASA officer is even selected to help with drafting instructions to the Office of Legislative Drafting and Publishing, the government department responsible for drafting all federal regulations.
The design of Australian airspace is also an ongoing, controversial, and divisive issue. There is no Class B airspace. Terminal control zones of busy airports are classified as Class C, with the upper limits usually extended to Class A, generally at Flight Level 180. These zones require a flight plan to pass through, or a pop-up clearance, which is not always readily given to VFR traffic. Class E is used along the populated coastal areas from 8,500 feet up to the base of Class A or Class C airspace. General aviation pilots also complain that they have been relegated by air traffic control to the low man on the totem pole. Strident controllers, under the aegis of powerful unions, insist on extravagant in-trail separation, low-volume traffic flows, and circuitous routings at Class D nonradar towers.
On the ground, things are not much better. Cumbersome regulations are enforced. Pedantic CASA inspectors fan out across the land to audit flight schools, FBOs, and maintenance facilities. Their time at each location is charged at between $130 and $150 Australian ($108.33 to $125 U.S.) per hour depending on the inspector's role and the time required to do his or her checks. Fines are levied for any infractions found.
Paul Phelan, based in rural Victoria, is a 14,000-hour charter pilot. He says, "One of the problems is the enormous number of approvals you require [in order] to do almost everything, another is the amount of time each process takes, and the third is the ease at which individual officers can impose a requirement and then charge you a large amount to fix it."
The end result of this bureaucracy is the shuttering of an increasing number of maintenance shops and flight schools. Also widely held in contempt is the recently introduced cost of airport security. Every Australian pilot, visiting foreign pilot, and airside employee at an Australian airport require an Aviation Security Identity Card, priced at $145 Australian ($121 U.S.); these often take months to receive while background checks are completed. Dick Smith, one of Australia's most respected businessmen and noted aviators, who once served as chairman of CASA, called this newest regulation "a most serious waste of money." He called for implementation of the U.S. system, in which a pilot certificate and another form of official, photo identification are adequate. Also in competition for the waste-of-money award is the incompetent, overreacting-government, post-9/11 decision to fence every RPT (Regular Public Transport) airport, now known as Security Controlled Airports. In a country like Australia, with tiny Outback towns and island airports, some of which have minimal air service, this is a cumbersome requirement. Wire fences are springing up around runways that don't have terminals, let alone metal detectors. With typical Australian humor, Phelan says, "The easiest way for a terrorist to board an airplane at these airports is to simply buy a ticket!"
With a mandate to contribute to operational costs, CASA and Airservices Australia must continue to increase their fees to maintain revenue. This is deleterious to an already frail and shrinking sector of civil aviation. Pilots recently rebelled against a $130 Australian ($108.33 U.S.) fee for issuance or renewal of their medical certificates. The government relented. It now charges $75 Australian ($62.50 U.S.) in addition to what pilots pay their examining doctor. For a typical IFR flight by Bonanza from Sydney to Melbourne, about the same distance from Frederick, Maryland, to Charleston, South Carolina, it would cost an Australian pilot or GA operator about $60 Australian ($50 U.S.) in ATC fees, plus airport charges. And on it goes.
CASA's schedule of fees for regulatory services is also extensive, and American GA will have a tough road ahead in meeting these types of costs. Smith says, "One of the biggest contributing factors in declining GA here is an almost complete lack of understanding by the government that safety regulations must be affordable. On top of this, they sold off the airports and commercialized air traffic control to give a return to the government. This may be OK if these organizations were run efficiently; however, traditionally [as they are government owned] they are highly unionized and highly inefficient."
As aviation enthusiasts get pushed out of GA by rampant bureaucracy and increasing expense, they head for sport and recreational flying. No longer just for ultralight fliers, this segment is growing with brio and strength. Ultralight aviation is no more purely the realm of dedicated minimum-aircraft aficionados, but it has matured into an authoritative industry well endowed with professional aviation businesspeople. And now, new lighter and more powerful flying machines are starting to more closely resemble the lower end of GA aircraft. While AOPA-Australia languishes with approximately 3,000 members (less than 10 percent of the nation's licensed pilots), Recreational Aviation Australia (RA-Aus) has a burgeoning membership of about 7,000, up 16 percent in the past year. W.J.R. "Bill" Hamilton is a retired, Sydney-based, career captain with Qantas and is a tireless worker for, and proponent of, a strong GA in Australia. He says, "It is ironic, but this organization is successful because it is largely devoid of CASA purview. It has been very effective in professionally self-regulating its members and how they operate. They have established a 'mini-FAA' within their organization. It goes to prove what I have always contended, that pilots are by nature intelligent, disciplined, and mostly responsible individuals. This organization is a paradigm on how GA should be run in Australia and other countries."
Hamilton has studied and has had experience with civil aviation and its regulation in numerous countries around the globe. "The FAA and your system in the U.S. is still mostly a great system. People from the rest of the world marvel at how efficient, safe, and cooperative it is. Do not surrender control of U.S. airspace to the airlines, or allow the U.S. Congress to become uninvolved, unless you want it to become like Australia."
In the abbreviated words of the pre-eminent Scottish poet Robert Burns, "Oh, to see ourselves as others see us."
Australia-born Patrick J. Mathews, AOPA 1134012, of Indian Wells, California, is a freelance travel and aviation writer, who spends several months each year in Australia. He is a 1,500-hour private, instrument-rated pilot and owns a 1993 Beechcraft Bonanza F33A.