In recent months an important, if not broadly understood aviation issue has been pursued behind the paywall of The Australian by Dick Smith on one side and the air traffic control provider AirServices Australia on the other.
Paywalls are essential if professional journalism is to survive, but unfortunately, a model that works effectively in Australia in conjunction with broad readership hasn’t yet been proven, which means that it is questionable as to whether there has been much connection between a crucial number of readers and the issues that have been raised by the newspaper’s detailed and perceptive coverage.
Yet that continuing argument, concerning new air traffic control technology (ADS-B or automatic dependant surveillance-broadcast) is one in which ruinous costs could lead to the shorter term destruction of the already hard pressed private and general aviation sectors in this country.
GA operators and private pilots are being asked to spend substantial sums of money on equipment that makes them ADS-B visible, yet not in practice be of use in many lower flight level situations, meaning that the money spent will not deliver improved safety outcomes in airspace and approaches to a wide range of secondary or regional airstrips where they are urgently needed.
These include airports where civil airliners, hobby ultra-light flyers, parachutists, private jets, more conventional propeller light aircraft and helicopters might all be using the same airspace, such as around Ballina or Port Macquarie.
While there are many voices canvassed by The Australian stories, and the twists and turns in the narratives do not lend themselves to bland summary, the twin focuses of the row have been on the opposing positions taken by Dick Smith and Angus Houston, who is the chairman of AirServices Australia.
Angus, as he prefers to be called, says everything is fine and Dick is wrong, and has in passing taken umbrage at criticism in the Senate of the amount of money being paid to AirServices managers, who are responsible for a public enterprise which supports itself from air navigation charges and makes profits which flow straight into Treasury.
My view is that Angus underlines a problem with the administrative and executive branches in Australia, in that there is a strong preference in Government to believe anything the Mandarins tell Ministers regardless of what party or coalition is in power, and that there is sod all serious independent auditing of claims and budget efficiency.
Angus is very loyal to his organisation, and some very fine professionals within it, but perhaps insufficiently skeptical of its narrative over the application of ADS-B technology as it currently stands.
Dick isn’t the only prominent general aviation figure quoted by coverage in The Australian as to the inadequacy of the airspace management in Australia today, and the more so, under ADS-B in the near future.
If Angus were to shift modes from defending the air traffic control establishment to dealing with the need to make the reforms work without further risking the survivability of the private pilot and general aviation interests in Australia we might have progress.
It seems inescapably reasonable that spending on ADS-B and the proper management of airspace must produce a very significant improvement in air safety by diminishing risk across all flying activities that involve the sharing of the skies between larger and smaller aircraft.
Otherwise, through insupportable cost pressures and inefficiencies, the very food chain in the aviation industry in terms of training, experience and critical skills in support services will be broken, and the ‘common good’ to use an old fashioned term, will be deeply harmed.