Agricultural operators dump on the regulator

The Aerial Agricultural Association of Australia (AAAA) has added its voice to the torrent of industry grievance against the aviation regulator.

AAAA’s blistering submission to the Aviation Safety Regulation Review (ASRR) Panel is all the more notable because the Association had always cultivated a track record of positive engagement with the multiple government agencies it deals with; and until now had shunned negative public comment on CASA’s performance.

But when the relationship turned to fertiliser AAAA provided the Panel a spirited, lucid and forceful analysis of what’s wrong, along with an intelligent manifesto of what needs to be done to fix it.

The presentation of AAAA’s analysis is of a quality and depth that can hardly be brushed aside in the same way CASA CEO John McCormick has dismissed unwelcome comment in the past:

“Do not be dismayed by our vocal but largely uninformed minority of critics; they are symptomatic of other ills in society. I prefer ‘facts’ when engaged in discussions; not hearsay and tautological rubbish that some others seem to regard as promising material.”

AAAA’s submission reminds us that there is already ample guidance material in place to “establish a baseline of “admirable values, systems, behaviour and outcomes”, and that some key improvements are still possible within the regulatory framework. But: “there is still considerable improvement available within agencies, especially in terms of embedding key principles and outcomes such as:

  • Transparency
  • Accountability
  • Quality
  • Continuous Improvement
  • Efficiency
  • Competence And Expertise
  • Consistency

However, one agency must be singled out for urgent attention and significant reform,” says AAAA. “CASA is now a low-trust organisation with all of the implications for efficiency, performance and relationships that brings. Industry is trusting the aviation regulatory review and government to rectify this situation.”

In cogent language supported throughout its submission by straight-talking analysis, AAA goes on to identify problem after problem, illustrate its existence and impact, and most importantly present credible and viable solutions.

“CASA is now performing so poorly as to demand significant change of its internal management and its relationship with industry so as to implement practical systems that will lead to commonly accepted benchmarks of practice and outcomes. CASA is dysfunctional at nearly every level, its relationship with industry has been junked, and it is suffering from such a pathological culture that major surgery will be required to realign the organisation with the common hallmarks of a sound safety regulator. CASA must walk the talk.”

AAAA’s submission cites most of the familiar areas of areas of grievance that have been raised for over 20 years by other organisations and individuals, illustrated by the following few of many examples:

“Sham consultation” in the regulatory reform process.

The cynicism demonstrated by CASA in attempting to manipulate the consultation process to simply approve CASA’s preferred position has been further highlighted in recent years by the gradual withdrawal of industry support for structures such as the Standards Consultative Committee. While many industry organisations, including AAAA, continue to attend various committees, reviews and working parties, it is on the understanding that input is likely to result in no changes from the CASA position. The debacle that is the maintenance licencing system is clear evidence of these types of outcomes.

What AAAA describes as the “messiah approach” to senior management appointments.

Many people in aviation believe that the critical component in sound aviation regulation is to have the ‘right’ person in key jobs, such as the CEO of CASA.

Unfortunately, this ‘messiah’ approach is fundamentally flawed if not supported by longer-term strategic approaches, systems and checks and balances, as demonstrated by the history of CASA and its predecessors.

“Perpetual inefficiency” substituting for the pursuit of continuous improvement.

All credible modern management theories and systems include a focus on the importance of continually striving to improve the organisation. This simple fact is also recognised as a key value in all Australian public service guiding documents – from legislation, to oversighting agencies (eg Public Service Commission, Productivity Commission) to individual agency corporate plans.

However, the concept is not honoured in practice with significantly variable quality across Australia’s aviation agencies. Some do it better than others, while at least one – CASA – does not embrace the concept at all, nor exhibits the management leadership or systems to deliver it. the indifference to industry realities that has been built not only into current regulatory practices and procedures, but also into the entire new regulatory structure in the name of “regulatory reform.”

The ultimate tipping point came when CASA effectively turned its back on a long-standing arrangement with AAAA. The whole industry has been plagued for at least 20 years by the practice of individual officials in airworthiness and flight operations dictating the content of maintenance and operations procedure manuals, only to find that the next official to come along doesn’t approve of the content and wants to reject the manual as unacceptable without even identifying what specific part of its content is objected to.

In slightly more reasonable times, the resulting waste of operator and CASA resources on these petty, niggling and wasteful processes had apparently been acknowledged and an agreement reached that a “standard operations manual” be developed for the use of all AAAA member companies that would meet the needs of industry.

Peace at last? Well, not quite:

It is worthwhile noting that the AAAA SOM is almost universally disliked by CASA FOIs and AWIs – not because they disagree with the content (they recently had the opportunity to make criticisms and input and very little was received) but because the SOM enforces a standardised approach on all CASA staff as the manual cannot be amended by individual FOIs or AWIs. It can only be amended at a higher level in consultations between CASA and AAAA.

By removing the power of CASA field staff to intimidate and obfuscate in accordance with personal preferences, the manual has delivered a significant cost saving to CASA, quicker turnaround and approval times for industry, and far greater certainty in the process.

But AAAA says this success had now been reversed by CASA’s lack of understanding of either the SOM concept or how it works within the regulator’s organisation. The resulting waste of time and human resources has not resulted in quicker handling of CASA “approvals” and the joint initiative has failed to deliver on its goals, complain the operators.

Twenty more current issues are identified as further illustrations of the failure of CASA to deliver the goods. They paint an alarming picture of failure across the whole spectrum of CASA’s responsibilities as set out in various ministerial instructions, internal, legal and public service guidelines.

A prevalent theme common to many of these issues is CASA’s spectacular failure to deliver  regulatory reform that is compliant with the project’s founding principles, and (in one example) then to blame industry for the fact that they are simply not workable because implementation required a manual of standards which had yet to be developed.

At the other end of the spectrum is an example of what seems to be sheer pettiness:

AAAA was aghast when the CEO of CASA unilaterally cut sponsorship support of a number of Associations and then linked that action to criticism of CASA by those Associations. AAAA has no problem with CASA spending its sponsorship dollar where it thinks it will get the best return – after all, most of the ‘dollars’ come from industry.

While the size of support AAAA received was immaterial ($9,000 per annum to support the National Convention – for which CASA received considerable commercial sponsorship benefits) the principle of trying to intimidate Associations by manipulating funding was simply disgusting.

To draw a direct line between CASA patronage and intimidation of free speech not only flows against public service guidelines or good practice, it is an unethical approach to managing the relationship between CASA and representative industry bodies that have previously worked genuinely with CASA over many years to deliver regulatory change and safety promotion.

A supplementary submission

Delivered to the Panel on 20 January, AAAA’s submission may have taken the ASRR Panel by surprise, although it is carefully constructed to fit with the review’s terms of reference and clearly identifies problems, their impact, their background, and viable solutions.

Perhaps at the Panel’s request, the Association later filed a supplementary submission that has identified what AAAA believes to be key areas that need attention and amendment, and a way forward to achieve them.

The supplementary submission sets out:

  • 12 recommended amendments to the Civil Aviation Act 1988.
  • Replacement of the current Board  with a reformed structure; or
  • Bringing CASA back under the Department of Infrastructure as a responsible departmental agency of the Department in a similar manner to other Department of Infrastructure agencies;
  • Regulatory reform moved to the Department of Infrastructure;
  • Safety promotion moved to ATSB; and
  • An ongoing economic and efficiency review to reduce the “waste, inefficiency and increasing costs imposed on industry [which] are tolerated by CASA because it has no incentive to reform itself.”

The AAAA submission has peered into several dark corners and identified numerous reasons for long-standing industry frustration and near-despair. It is recommended reading for everybody in the industry who hopes for reform. It is also recommended reading for CASA’s entire Board, its senior managers, the Department’s bureaucrats, and in particular the current Minister, whose apparent inertia on these matters is matched only by that of his predecessor, Anthony Albanese.

Click here for the entire detailed 40-page AAAA submission, and here for the supplementary submission.

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About Paul Phelan

Paul Phelan flew for over 50 years in private, charter, corporate and regional aviation, worked in senior management roles with a major regional airline, and retains his license. In parallel he has been writing for Australian and international aviation journals for well over 20 years on all aspects of aviation including aircraft evaluation, flying, industry affairs, infrastructure, manufacture, regulatory affairs, safety, technologies and training. He has won three separate National Aviation Press Club awards for "best technical aviation story of the year."

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