It is highly likely that few Australians, or for that matter, readers of The Australian are paying much attention to Dick Smith’s episodic attacks on the competency of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.

But they should, because what is at stake goes beyond even air safety, to the willingness of elected governments to be heard and obeyed by public servants who arguably are impervious to considerations of public interest.

For those who have made it to this, the third paragraph, the supremacy of the executive branch over the administrative branch of government isn’t just about Dick Smith’s well argued concerns about several hundred people being slaughtered in a scheduled airliner because CASA apparently doesn’t give a damn about what Ministers say, but about Australia being an effective parliamentary democracy.

The technicalities of Dick Smith’s objections to CASA edicts as to how airspace should be managed in this country—in a remarkably asinine way in the opinion of this observer—ensure that few members of the public, or their elected reps, ever get their heads around them.

Dick Smith flying his Longranger over the east coast of Tasmania
Dick Smith flying his Longranger over the east coast of Tasmania

However last week Smith, aviator, adventurer, businessman and philanthropist, had law firm Mark O’Brien, serve notice on Mark Skidmore, director of safety, CASA, of his intention to put Mr Skidmore in the witness box in the Federal Court to explain or defend Mr Smith’s claims that he has ignored government direction in framing changes to airspace management in Australia’s skies.

This is something which ought to interest not just Australian carriers, but foreign users of our airspace, such as Emirates, Etihad and Cathay Pacific, who have like Qantas and Virgin Australia, been on the receiving end of some shoddy lapses in performance by AirServices Australia that have been detailed in various legally privileged incident investigations by the ATSB.

For those who have made it thus far, the core issue is a direction by CASA that pilots using mostly light aircraft at low altitudes in a range of remote locations use the same radio frequencies as civil airlines operating at high altitudes to keep themselves aware of each other’s movements.

That direction is not only idiotic in terms of the distractions and confusion that they can cause, but inherently harmful in its potential to block vital communications between large high jets and ATC controllers in a range of situations.

There is no radar coverage over much of the interior of Australia, and separation standards between the jets that overfly these areas not only require strict position reporting, but prompt actions when for example a jet has to make a medical diversion, or descend lower because of a cabin pressure problem or an engine failure in a twin engine airliner.

There are large ranges of normal, as well as abnormal requirements in air traffic control that in a sensible, competently run air traffic control operation would never have to accommodate the communications of aircraft managing cattle, or organizing their own separation when using rough or often unchartered landing strips which exist in their hundreds under the paths flown by A380s, 777s, 787s and A330s.

This sort of infantile pandemonium endorsed by CASA in contradiction of specific government policy settings is something that the newly responsible Minister, Darren Chester, ought to deal with inbetween the other numerous distractions of his infrastructure portfolio.

But infrastructure is a department impervious under both sides of politics to informed direction by its responsible ministers. The disgusting conduct of CASA and the ATSB in relation to the Pel-Air accident is but one example of that.

The comic opera decision to force cattle mustering aircraft onto the airwaves of giant jets flying across Australia contrary to the clearest of instructions has its deadly upside.

That risk is a reason to hope that CASA is too set in its ways to blink, and that these matters do come to court, because such fundamental conflicts between the executive and administrative branches do really need to be dealt with in public.

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