The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) audit of safety oversight in Australia isn’t a pretty read.

There are a number of findings about the regulator, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) and the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), the incident and accident investigator, and AirServices Australia, that reflect poorly on their performance, and therefore on their governmental and managerial oversight.

Some of the key findings will be discussed in another posting on Plane Talking later today.

But the wording and methodology of the audit needs to be understood in advance of any effort by the Department of Infrastructure to ‘spin’ the final report in a misleading light.

The audit’s final report is a negotiated document. The audit team provides the interested parties with a draft, those parties take exception or otherwise to the wording, and a to-and-fro process occurs which retains the conclusions made by the auditors but in a language the parties are prepared to live with.

The audit was also conducted between 18-28 February last year, well before the CASA special audit of Qantas discovered that the airline’s safety standards were slipping, and also, that CASA had been clueless or mute as the case may be about those failings by Qantas in years prior.

The audit was over when Qantas discovered it had forgotten a crucial airworthiness directive to complete modifications to the forward pressure bulkhead in five of its Boeing 737-400s, but then claimed it didn’t matter anyhow.

It did. The jets carried hundreds of thousands of people for five years without the work being done. Airworthiness directives are by definition serious directions to remedy air safety issues. The former head of engineering, David Cox, who played down the matter has since left Qantas. So has the CEO Geoff Dixon on whose watch the standards of cleanliness, serviceability and reliability of Qantas went south.

Where was CASA during this? Basically off with the pixies it seems, since there was, to summarise its commentary, no risk to public safety but a special audit was called anyhow, during which it discovered things it should have been on top of from the start.

The government might yet point to the ICAO audit report and say Australia came up looking very good. Bureaucrats in the main aviation regulators did after all vet the final version.

But the way these audits work is that any deficiencies that are found are then subject to agreed corrective action, or to an agreement to disagree, with the country concerned lodging an ‘exception’ on such issues with ICAO.

Provided rectification is agreed on in most issues, a whole series of adverse findings, which can reflect very poorly on the running of an organisation, can be given the ICAO tick of approval.

Anyone who looks just at the final ratings for the various Australian parties can then come to the superficial conclusion everything is just fine.

In fact everything was not fine, for a period of some years in the case of some failings, and there is no iron clad guarantee that the fixes outlined in the final report will be applied in full or by their deadlines.

Keeping these matters in mind, a reading of the actual detail in an ICAO report can result in a rather different conclusion than the one the government, CASA and the ATSB might all wish in relation to some of the findings.

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