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Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee

ALECK, Dr Jonathan, Acting Director of Aviation Safety, Civil Aviation Safety Authority

McRANDLE, Mr Brendan, Executive Director, Aviation and Airports Division, Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities

WOLFE, Mr Jim, General Manager, Air Traffic Policy, Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities


ACTING CHAIR: Welcome to officers from the Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities. I had to check my paperwork because your name changes every time there's an election. Mr McRandle and Mr Wolfe, did you wish to make a brief opening statement?

Mr McRandle : No, thank you.

ACTING CHAIR: I will ask the question again: who could make the decision and how would it be done if a community got to the minister and said, 'We need to change some of these training hours and days'? You know where I'm going. How could it be done?

Mr McRandle : That sounds to me like the operation of a curfew arrangement, and that would be done by the parliament. The complication of course is that those airports operate as businesses. They were privatised some years ago with certain arrangements in place, including no restrictions. There are operators on the airport—training organisations—who will obviously invest considerable sums. If the goalposts were shifted in terms of the opportunities for training, I think there would be some serious challenges for the government of the day in terms of claims for damages.

ACTING CHAIR: Yes, I'd forgotten. I didn't realise Moorabbin was—

Mr McRandle : Was part of the privatised airports.

ACTING CHAIR: privatised as well. Thanks very much. Mr Wolfe?

Mr Wolfe : I think what my colleague from CASA Dr Aleck was alluding to, for example, restrictions on training circuits, would be put in place in essence by CASA if they believed on safety and operational reasons they were necessary.

ACTING CHAIR: I've let Dr Aleck go—I know he's stopped at the back of the room. There was an accident not long ago. Could we have a conversation about that later—not today but back in Canberra—Dr Aleck?

Dr Aleck : Yes.

ACTING CHAIR: I think that might help the committee. We might arrange a bit of a briefing from CASA on that. Thank you.

Senator RICE: To paraphrase what you say in your submission, a lot of what this bill is trying to achieve to improve community consultation isn't necessary, because the existing legislation already has provisions for adequate community consultation.

Mr McRandle : Legislation, but also policy coming out of the 2009 white paper, established the community consultation groups around airports. I think from the evidence you've heard today, and most recently from the agencies that were here, there's clearly an opportunity to look at how effective those consultation arrangements can be—can they be sharpened up? They do to a large degree draw on quite a wide range of interests. I think in respect of the proposed bill—and the Community Aviation Advocate—it was unclear how one person might adequately represent potentially a diverse range of interests in different communities around the noise issue, whereas the existing mechanisms that the airports operate for the community consultation groups provide a basis for that broader reach into the way that the aviation community operates around cities.

Senator RICE: In terms of how the Community Aviation Advocate could operate, they would be engaging with those communities and bringing different perspectives so they don't have to try and make the judgement as to who wins out of any consideration. I think that the aim of it is to give these communities a voice, and I don't know whether you've had an opportunity to read the submissions from the community groups. Certainly we heard from them this morning, and they feel that, even with the existing legislation, their voices aren't being heard. There's information being given to them in most circumstances, not necessarily all, but there's not much being taken back.

Mr McRandle : And I did hear that message and saw those messages in those submissions. My query would be whether this mechanism will genuinely solve that concern. I know that, in my work in a previous project in the department on the Western Sydney Airport and setting up the forum on Western Sydney as the community consultation group, there's a membership of over 20 on that group. There were always calls for more members to join, and there were always choices or balances to be made around just how big a forum can be before it no longer becomes effective as a consultation forum. My query is in relation to the community advocate and how that would operate in practice to deliver clearer benefits and maybe looking at the existing arrangements and seeing what improvements could be made to those things.

Senator RICE: I think it's the power relationship. You'd have somebody who actually was, if not at a seat at the table, in a pipeline, who would have the expertise to make sure that the perspectives of the community are being taken into account.

Mr McRandle : Part of the query I have is: what determines the expertise? It's thinking about how you would put that into practice. I think the minister would appoint the community advocate around any particular issues, and criteria would be used to identify who that person should be and how that would work in relation to those existing forums that have a fairly wide range of participants already.

Senator RICE: I understand at Sydney Airport there was an equivalent position that was in place for a while. Do you know anything about that position and why it ceased?

Mr McRandle : I personally do not, but I'll ask my colleague Mr Wolfe if he does. If we don't, we'll come back to you with that advice.

Mr Wolfe : I think there were a number of factors involved, but I'd like to get the formal advice for you on that one and come back. It was a few years ago now, and there were a number of issues and, as was mentioned, Sydney Airport Community Forum is a different community aviation consulting group quite formally set up and included, of course, local members of parliament.

Senator RICE: If you could get back to us. Certainly the information that we've been given was that it was a cost consideration rather than a lack of effectiveness as to why that position ceased.

Mr McRandle : We'll certainly track down the answers and the reasons behind the change, and get back to the committee on that.

Senator BROCKMAN: Is the community consultation model different in different states?

Mr McRandle : Each airport operates their own community consultation group. Sydney does. Sydney Airport Consultative Forum, SACF, does stand out as quite different. Its membership is largely political or representative of local politicians. Most other airport groups represent a broader range of community interests. I would say that Sydney Airport has some of the tightest restrictions on it operating anywhere. It leads to a number of challenges and inefficiencies from a productive economic perspective, and it's always—

Senator RICE: Presumably, giving value to local community.

Mr McRandle : But not always: sometimes it has perverse outcomes in the way those things operate. For example, if you look at the way the curfew operates at Sydney Airport, there are exemptions to the curfew to allow a certain number of freighter aircraft; however, they're specified by type. Those aircraft are now 20 years or older and they're relatively noisier compared to the new ones, but the legislation is such that the newer—if you see what I mean when you start to legislate for solutions, it might seem right at the time. However, 20 years on, you actually find that they—

Senator RICE: To keep up with changing circumstances.

Mr McRandle : That's right, and it's not always as easy to change those things in the parliament once they're in. Sydney has quite a specific set of circumstances, and it doesn't always lend itself well as a model for how other airports might operate.

Mr Wolfe : There is some consistency about the CACGs. They're generally independently chaired. There are a range of representatives on them. Some actually have open meetings where the public can attend. In fact, I think Melbourne Airport is one of those.

Senator RICE: They've just changed their operations so that they are no longer.

Mr Wolfe : Yes, you're quite right. There's an evolving aspect to them. But there are always challenges about who is represented on the CACGs.

Mr McRandle : I just make the point as well that there are other forums beyond the CACGs that operate. There are planning consultation forums that meet as well. They often have members of local government involved in them, and they deal with a broad range of issues around the long-term plans for the airport and what the effects would be on those local surrounding communities. So there's more than one forum that can operate at airports. They sometimes deal with similar elements and sometimes with different elements, but together they provide a fuller picture, I guess, of the operation of the airport in the context of the community it serves.

Mr Wolfe : To give the CACGs their due, they were actually reviewed a few years ago, independently, and they were found to be a fairly effective measure of consultation.

Senator RICE: People who have submitted to us from the community have a different view to that.

Mr Wolfe : A local view about a particular CACG, yes.

Senator RICE: It's not just the Melbourne CACG; there are a range of CACGs. We have been told they can be effective in conveying information, but there's a lot of frustration that the views of the community aren't being taken into account.

Mr McRandle : Yes. We understand that that frustration exists and that it is quite challenging. I appreciate that this bill is an effort to address those issues, but it is necessarily challenging to satisfy everyone in the community given the range of interests and perspectives on some of these issues.

Senator RICE: With the other mechanisms that we've talked about—the community aviation advocate—your submission also doesn't support having people on the board with expertise in environment and community. I think that you don't think that the board membership should be selected on the basis of mandated criteria. There are many other boards that do have mandated criteria and requirements.

Mr McRandle : On that one the question is probably: is the board position the right place? The organisation, at the managerial and technical level, does have expertise in some of these areas, and that's probably the more effective place to have those experts rather than on the board.

Senator RICE: You'd want them on both, wouldn't you?

Mr McRandle : A board like that of Airservices has quite a diverse range of expertise across its membership, and there are a range of backgrounds and expertise that board members might bring to a position. As Mr Harfield said previously, there are certain requirements on boards around how you exercise your functions and in whose interests you are actually operating, and they're set out in things like the Corporations Act. But it's also an area where I think the noise ombudsman is a very effective mechanism. The current ombudsman, Ms Bell, reports directly to the board, and I think that's quite an effective mechanism as well. She's not reporting to the management team, who are the ones who are doing the day-to-day work in Airservices, but rather going directly to the Airservices board. That's a good mechanism, I think, to make sure that those issues are put before the highest level of governance arrangements in Airservices and that they can take decisions about how they want to respond to the recommendations. I think on the whole they've responded very positively to those reports.

Senator RICE: You weren't seeing the views of the residents behind you, who were vigorously shaking their heads. That's been their experience with the Air Noise Ombudsman.

Mr McRandle : I'm not surprised.

Senator RICE: You're not surprised?

Mr McRandle : I'm not surprised that people would not feel satisfied. If they're expressing a view that they haven't been satisfied with the process to date, describing it again isn't going to make them feel more satisfied. But what I'm saying is that I think those arrangements are actually quite sound arrangements around the operation of a board. I'm not convinced that putting additional members on a board with an environmental background, for example, would on the whole lead to any meaningful change to the way the board would need to operate given its legislation. There are other competing factors, I guess. When we talk about the environmental aspects, certainly noise and acoustics are one element. But, if you require aircraft to fly higher, they're climbing for longer and using more fuel burn, and there's more emissions. So there are other things that you also need to trade off in the environmental sphere.

Senator RICE: Certainly, I think it is about having people on your board who have the ability, the knowledge, the expertise and a particular passion about those areas. That's what happens on boards in different organisations all around the world. You get different outcomes from boards, depending on who you have on your board.

Mr McRandle : That's true. But I would also say that, at the technical and managerial levels, that expertise is also useful.

Senator RICE: Can I pick up on the air noise ombudsman, because there have been two criticisms of the air noise ombudsman. One criticism is that they only look at whether the process has been followed. Given that the consultation processes are pretty broad and vague at the moment, people get told: 'Well, yes, your complaint has been registered, it has been noted and you've had an explanation given back to you that we can't change the flight paths, and so that's that. Therefore, there's nothing for the air noise ombudsman to consider.' You say that the air noise ombudsman is doing a good job by reporting to the board. Can you understand the frustration of the community in that they actually don't feel there is that much value if that is all they are getting back from the air noise ombudsman?

Mr McRandle : I can understand the frustration if people are unable to effect the change they are hoping for around these things. But I think for the reasons given by Airservices and CASA to the previous questions, it's really important to explain why it is that things are unable to change. It's almost inevitably around the safety case or the safety aspects of those things. I wouldn't want to describe the noise ombudsman's role in a too limited way. We've certainly found that the noise ombudsman and her team were very effective with their work in relation to educating state agencies, for example, around the Western Sydney airport project. So they have a proactive role as well, but they do take a fresh look at the way that Airservices has addressed consultation around an airspace change, for example. From what I've observed, they make very credible and objective recommendations. The fact that those have been picked up in the past and agreed by the Airservices board shows that they're an effective organisation. I wouldn't describe their role as being too limited by the way that they've been set up.

Senator RICE: Do you think there is merit in the proposal in the bill for the air noise ombudsman to be independent of Airservices Australia, as most other ombudsmen are? They are not actually employed by the agency that they are investigating.

Mr McRandle : The way I would describe it is that they are funded by the industry, which is a fairly normal way of ombudspersons being funded; it is through the industry. They're funded through the industry via Airservices.

Senator RICE: It's the reporting arrangements—

Mr McRandle : It reports to the board. I think at the end of the day a noise ombudsman for aircraft noise would need to report to an entity like the—

Senator RICE: Why not the minister?

Mr McRandle : It's where we're going to have the ability to effect the change. Airservices, in terms of the airspace managers and looking at the way that they've been conducting—

Senator RICE: If they're reporting to the minister, the minister would then be able to convey to Airservices or whoever else that these are the changes that are required to increase the independence of the air noise ombudsman.

Mr Wolfe : The evidence at the moment indicates that the ombudsman is acting independently, as did Narelle's predecessor, Ron Brent. They've produced a series of quite significant reports in relation to a number of airports around Australia, all of which the Airservices board has implemented. As I understand it, they have implemented every one of the recommendations made by the ombudsman. So I think it's a bit unfair on the ombudsman to suggest that somehow they're in some sort of constrained environment or their independence is being challenged. Of course, if there were evidence to the contrary of that, it would be a different consideration. But, as it stands now, to be honest, I think we get pretty positive feedback from both sides of the fence about the role of the Aircraft Noise Ombudsman.

Senator RICE: Most ombudsmen, you would agree, don't report to the board of the main organisation that they are responsible to investigate.

Mr Wolfe : It depends on whether it's a Commonwealth statutory ombudsman or whether it's an industry ombudsman.

Senator RICE: This is industry, but it would effectively be setting it up to separate that out, wouldn't it?

Mr Wolfe : The concern would be if we believed that the Airservices board were not having regard to what the ombudsman's work and recommendations were. At the moment, we don't have any evidence of that.

Senator BROCKMAN: Would reporting to the minister potentially politicise or add to the politicisation of some of these arguments? That would be my concern.

Mr Wolfe : I can see someone having that argument.

Mr McRandle : I think it's a reasonable question to ask. I would hope not. I'm trying my best not to!

Senator RICE: In your submission you stated that the triggers for review of flight paths should rest with the safety regulator rather than individual people. What if the regulator doesn't identify that there's a need to review flight paths but others—whether it's community people or others—do.

Mr Wolfe : But other people can put forward suggestions about airspace/flight paths to those agencies, including CASA. The question that CASA has raised is that their charter indicates that, in looking at airspace, their primacy is in relation to safety. But that's not to say that when CASA does airspace reviews it does not—because it does—receive representations from the community as well as from the industry, Airservices and the airport operator. So when CASA does an airspace review it actually does a community consultation process.

Senator RICE: That's if they identify that. There is the Melbourne example, where we've got the residents of East Melbourne who are being affected by flight paths that are, overwhelmingly, going over their community. They would love to trigger a review of flight paths, but they're not being listened to.

Mr McRandle : The safety consideration is what drives CASA's approach to looking at these issues. There are a number of competing interests around where flight paths may go. Airlines would like to—

Senator RICE: Absolutely. You're not going to just change things without considering all of the issues.

Mr McRandle : No, and airlines would like the most efficient flight paths with the fewest number of turns and all those sorts of things. Communities would like them to be not near their places. And the challenge that we're all trying to manage is that for decades aviation facilities grew up inside cities that have not necessarily been well planned in terms of how residential areas have been allowed to be set up around airports. No we're seeing those come into conflict, and it's always a challenge to find the best way forward. I think, as all the evidence I've heard this afternoon has been quite clear about, the starting point is safety and then you manage the efficiency and the environmental effects to the best of your abilities. But you are, inherently, going to have those challenges in a mature city like Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane, particularly around those GA airports that have often been around since the pre-war era, and the city has changed over the decades.

Senator RICE: I think there is frustration for residents who would like to have changes to flight parts considered. They don't feel that they've got a seat at the table or a good channel to actually have their concerns being properly taken on board.

Mr Wolfe : I should add that CASA does have to do a regular review of airspace. It's a five-year cycle. They can't let it sit there and say, 'I'll do a review when I feel like it.' They have to review the airspace in a regular process.

Mr McRandle : It's typically five years. I think the question may be how aware interested members of the community are of those opportunities, and where they can best contribute. And I think these are certainly questions that we all, as policymakers and policy advisers, ought to look at.

Mr Wolfe : There's no doubt the community seems much more aware of when, for example, someone's putting forward a proposed major runway development—with the formal process behind that of a major development process. For example, with the one that's just started in Perth there is a fairly significant degree of community awareness that it is out there for comment.

Senator RICE: We've just done that. With the Melbourne process that is going on at the moment, with the proposed new runway, there are residents who are fired up, because they've had a history over time, but there are other residents who are likely to be affected but have no idea that they're going to be affected. So even with those major developments there's an issue—

Mr Wolfe : It gets to how widespread the consultation process is.

Senator RICE: with thorough consultation and active engagement of potentially impacted communities.

Mr Wolfe : Correct.

Mr McRandle : On that, generally we would acknowledge the work of the noise ombudsman and the work that we did around the Western Sydney project. Obviously there were some interesting issues that came out of the first cut of the way we'd do the airspace, and there are now conditions in the approval that send some very clear directions about how that work goes. The noise ombudsman made a really solid contribution to our understanding about how best to go forward with consultation. It often is a learning process, but we are always looking to do best practice.

ACTING CHAIR ( Senator Brockman ): I have a very prospective question. I was chatting with the Australian of the Year, who's a developer of quantum computing, and the next generation of computing is going to be very good at maximising the efficiency of that. If, hypothetically speaking, a model came out to say that most of the lines on this sheet of paper should be moved, who would actually be tasked with implementing that, and how would it go about happening? Is that Airservices Australia?

Mr Wolfe : That would depend. Let me go through a couple of possible scenarios. The first one would be that CASA obviously does its own airspace reviews. When you're, for example, building a new runway or you have a suggestion about how to change current airspace arrangements, you essentially can do what's known as an airspace change proposal. Anyone, technically, can do an airspace change proposal, but obviously they would normally be done by the airport operator, by Airservices Australia or possibly by an airline. They could even be done by members of the community.

ACTING CHAIR: So that kind of development is more likely to come from an airport or from a regulator?

Mr Wolfe : Correct. The reason why they'd be putting that forward is that obviously they've got their own particular way in which they wish to most efficiently operate—but it has to be done safely—those particular flight paths and those particular procedures. We should add that flight paths are strongly dictated by the way in which aircraft operate. In some airports, there is a mix of types of aircraft, as we often have in our major airports, from an A380 to a small propeller aircraft. They have different types of ways in which they have to arrive at and depart an airport.

Mr McRandle : Technically helicopters operate a bit differently from fixed-wing aircraft, because of the nature of the aircraft. I think your question is around who would actually do the design work based on this.

ACTING CHAIR: And what parameters you feed into that model could actually result in very different lines on this piece of paper.

Senator RICE: Yes, and how much value and significance you give to different communities who are potentially going to be affected by the noise of different flight paths.

Mr McRandle : Yes. We are seeing some changes in technologies that are affecting the way aircraft can operate. Things like satellite navigation compared to the old ground based fixed navigation, which was line-of-sight radio waves, give us a lot more flexibility in the way that flight arrivals and departures can be designed. But ultimately the biggest factor dictating flight paths is probably the alignment of the runway, because you've got to be on that stabilised approach on the final part of the arrival. We heard about the three degrees. Basically one in 20 is the gradient that an aeroplane would typically fly on an approach into a runway. Those things probably always will have the biggest influence, and those other technologies tend to have their effect further out from the airfield when the aircraft are higher.

ACTING CHAIR: Fair enough. I think I'm in the chair, so I declare this hearing closed. I want to thank all our witnesses today. Sincere thanks to those members of the community who have come in and spent a lot of time in the room. I also want to thank our secretariat, of course, and Broadcasting. Answers to questions on notice are due on 13 July.

Committee adjourned at 14:44