Contrasting fortunes for Australian business aviation and GA

-
Source:
This story is sourced from Flight International
Subscribe today »

Australia's business aviation and general aviation sectors could not be more divergent in terms of their health, with the former enjoying a mini-boom and good prospects for the future while the latter launches a rescue package designed to arrest decline.

"Australian business aviation activity suffered less than overseas during the recent global economic downturn due to many factors," says David Bell, executive director of the Australian Business Aircraft Association (ABAA). These include the strength of the Australian economy - much of it derived from a booming resources industry - and the ongoing need for the country's major companies and wealthy individuals to have their own aviation transport to ensure privacy and security, he says.

All sectors of the market are expanding, according to the ABAA, which has 21 operating members who own and operate 60% of the country's business jet fleet. There are also 25 associate members, including aircraft manufacturers, maintenance and support companies.

first australian mustang, aeromil pacific
 © Aeromil Pacific
All sectors of the local business aviation sector are expected to grow, including entry-level jets such as the Cessna Mustang

In December 2009, 122 business jets were on the Australian Civil Aviation Register, says Bell. The national fleet figures rises to 139 with the addition of the Royal Australian Air Force's VIP aircraft - two Boeing Business Jets and three Bombardier Challenger 604s - plus several US and Cayman Island-registered aircraft that spend a lot of time in Australia. Of these 139 aircraft, 107 were flown for private or charter business or emergency medical purposes, while the other 32 were used for VIP transport, freight, law enforcement or airliner training.

By December 2010, there were 140 business jets on the register and 158 operating in the country. In addition, there are a further 150 turboprop business aircraft in operation, Bell estimates. "All sectors are expanding - entry-level jets such as the Cessna Mustang, Beech Premier IA and Embraer Phenom 100; mid-size jets including the Hawker 900XP, Dassault Falcon 2000 and Cessna Citation X; and long-range jets including the Bombardier Global Express and Gulfstream 450 and 550," says Bell.

The long-range sector is probably showing the strongest growth as companies increase their overseas travel, he adds.

Companies involved in the sector are flourishing. Hawker Pacific, for example, has expanded its network of fixed-base operations across the country. Execujet Aviation has matched it and is increasing the number of business jets on its books. Charter operators are also growing their fleets: last year Perth-based AVWest ordered four ultra-long-range Global Express XRS jets.

Fractional ownership has failed to establish itself in the country, despite attempts by a number of companies. "Fractional ownership needs a large number of owners over a wide geographical area in order to reduce the number of positioning flights with nil passengers," says Bell. "Australia does not have the critical mass of potential fractional owners."

Overall, Bell sees a bright future for his sector. "Business aviation in Australia is on a sound footing with encouraging signs that the requirement for business aircraft travel will continue to increase in the foreseeable future," he says. However, certain areas remain problematic, among them access to access to - and overcharging at - airports and access to airspace generally, he adds. But these problems are nothing in comparison with those facing the country's GA sector. Last year, five concerned bodies clubbed together to pursue a GA Rescue Package aimed at reviving the sector: the Aerial Agricultural Association of Australia, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), the Aviation Maintenance Repair and Overhaul Business Association (AMROBA), the Regional Aviation Association of Australia and the Royal Federation of Aero Clubs of Australia.

The industry perceives Australian GA's growth prospects to be curtailed by a raft of problems, including over-regulation of the sector, a lack of infrastructure, a government policy of selling off the country's aerodromes, closure of aerodromes, and an ageing GA fleet not replaced due because of a lack of taxation incentives. As a result, total GA flying hours were fairly flat over the 15-year period up to 2008, with a peak of 1.88 million hours in 1998, a low of 1.64 million in 2004 and an overall decrease of 0.2% a year.

In 2009 figures recently released by Australia's Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics, GA sector activity fell by 2.7% to 1.8 million hours flown. Only private operations and training showed increases, of 4.9% and 2.4% respectively. The average age of the fleet is 26.9 years - up 0.4 years on the 2008 figure.

"Governments at all levels are not providing the environment or infrastructure for GA to grow because they have not objectively determined the benefits of GA to the Australian community and economy," according to the GA Rescue Package (see box). The contribution made to the economy by GA was "embarrassingly underestimated" in the government's Aviation White Paper of 2009.

"The fact that even the government does not know the size of the sector or the contribution it makes speaks volumes for the current approach to GA policy," it adds. "Unless governments at all levels accept that aerodromes and aviation bring significant economic benefits to the community, then this inaction will continue to kill off GA."

Since the Rescue Package was announced last August, a series of workshops have been held and a committee formed to collate the results with a view to developing a GA revitalisation white paper, says AOPA president Phillip Reiss.

The white paper, or roadmap, will be distributed to all politicians and all relevant government regulators, he says. "AOPA and AMROBA are driving this with support from other organisations." The group is aiming to complete the work this month.

Reiss says the GA sector does not expect any improvement in its situation as a result of the recent government Aviation White Paper. "This makes statements such as 'GA needs to be encouraged and developed' without anything of substance being produced," he argues.

The earlier GA Action Agenda also failed to help the sector. The GA AA was launched in 2007 as a government-industry initiative designed to acknowledge and address the sector's problems, but was incorporated into the wider White Paper process in 2009.

"No discussion group is entirely wasted, but it was conducted by government and therefore controlled to a degree by the regulators who adopt a defensive position on most issues," Reiss recalls of the AA.

The recreational aviation sector, meanwhile, is booming. Recreational Aviation-Australia (RA-Aus) is the largest of a number of sport and recreational aviation bodies in the country. As of late January, it had 9,626 flying and maintenance members, up on 9,400 the previous year, and 3,267 aircraft registered.

RA-Aus chief executive Steve Tizzard says that these range from the "rag-and-tube" minimal aircraft through to the "plastic fantastics" with performance and handling characteristics equally or surpassing many light GA aircraft. The sector's growth has been maintained ever since its inception, says Tizzard. "For several years prior to 2009, the RA-Aus growth rate was astonishing.

"The growth rate does appear to be slowing a little; nonetheless our numbers are still increasing."

Why recreational and sport aviation flourishes in Australia while GA does not is the "million dollar question", says Tizzard. But operating, maintenance and training costs are all lower for the recreational sector, which is a big draw, he adds.

Furthermore, because the sector is allowed to operate under a set of exemptions and Civil Aviation Orders, some restrictions found in GA are less onerous for RA-Aus members.

"One prime example is maintenance - unless the aircraft is used for flight training in an approved facility, the owner can perform almost all their own maintenance," says Tizzard. In addition, with the exception of a few medical conditions, RA-Aus members require an equivalent health standard to that of car drivers and can self-certificate, unlike GA pilots who require an expensive medical examination every two years.

Self-administration of the sector may also have helped. "One of RA-Aus's aims is to enable safe, affordable flying with minimum bureaucracy," says Tizzard.

"We are not suggesting that this implies a lack of rules/regulations or standards, but we are able to offer certain benefits to members simply because we are subject to less complex legislation."

GENERAL AVIATION'S TOP 10 DEMANDS

Representatives of Australia's general aviation sector's arguments within the so-called GA Rescue Package.

  • Government must engage better with industry by establishing a ministerial forum with leading industry associations.
  • Aviation is a vital infrastructure and should be given a higher policy and funding priority, through tax reform and government programmes.
  • The aviation skills shortage should be addressed by setting up a Higher Education Contribution Scheme for pilots and engineers.
  • Government must consider increased support for GA airports struggling with increasing costs of maintenance and compliance - and threats from developers.
  • Security requirements for GA aircraft and pilots should be simplified.
  • The Civil Aviation Safety Authority's (CASA) culture must be changed to include fostering and promoting aviation.
  • CASA should establish a task force to work with industry to improve efficiency and effectiveness.
  • CASA should be directed by government to substantially simplify and reduce its regulatory burden on GA.
  • CASA should be directed by government to work cooperatively with industry associations to develop recognised codes of practice that will support aviation safety while reducing compliance costs.
  • CASA should be directed to abandon its European-based approach to regulatory reform for GA and adopt a model based on the US Federal Aviation Administration system of simple regulations for simple operations.