In September, The Australian’s Higher Education section published two stories on the mess in Australia’s aviation training sector. John Ross reported that the problems had sparked safety concerns and warnings that Australia would squander the opportunity to take advantage of business opportunities from Southeast Asia. Only now is the gravity of the debacle becoming clear, with the Turnbull government set to allow foreign pilots into Australia on temporary work visas. The decision by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton is sensible, with pilot shortages responsible for the cancellation of planned regional flights and the grounding of aircraft. The visas are a short-term fix, however.
New Transport Minister Barnaby Joyce, together with the industry and training sector, must reform flight training to ensure Australia can again provide sufficient pilots for the nation’s needs and capitalise on opportunities in the Asia-Pacific region. There would be no shortage of applicants. Many young people recognise that flying is an exciting, interesting career with opportunities for travel and promotion, including aspiring to fly the world’s most sophisticated passenger aircraft such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
Like businessman Dick Smith, a former chairman of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, many Australians will be angered by the fact the Merredin aerodrome, 260km east of Perth, is effectively under the control of a Chinese government enterprise, the state-owned China Southern Airlines. Under a secret deal in 1993, the company paid the princely sum of $1 to the West Australian government to lease the airport for 100 years as a base to train thousands of Chinese pilots.
The training school, which has suspended operations after CASA raised safety concerns, is one of several Chinese-owned aviation colleges in Australia. China will need an extra 110,000 pilots by 2035 but it relies on other countries for training because of its heavy smog, military-controlled airspace and a lack of English-speaking instructors. Writing in The Australian today, Mr Smith blames failed government policy dating back decades for the mess. He says skyrocketing regulatory costs and pointless red tape are forcing flying trainers to sell out at bargain rates to the Chinese. As a result, general aviation flying hours, including training, have fallen by 40 per cent in five years.
One of Australia’s most experienced flight trainers, Glen Buckley, head of Melbourne Flight Training, says he has just spent $700,000 to comply with new CASA regulations and that the impost almost broke him. Mr Buckley has received repeated offers from Chinese companies to buy part of his business, as have flight trainers at Bankstown, west of Sydney. Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association chief executive Ben Morgan, who believes more than half of flight training in Australia is carried out by foreign companies, wants CASA to allow independent instructors, similar to those who train most US pilots, to play a greater role. In the national interest, Mr Joyce must work with the industry to find solutions.