When Mallacoota resident Ruth Hannah suffered extreme anaemia and a displaced stomach last year, an Angel Flight changed her life.
- Planes are no longer able to use an instrument approach when landing at six airports, aerodromes, and airfields in WA, Queensland, NSW, and Victoria
- East Gippsland Shire Council allowed Mallacoota Airport to be de-certified
- All pilots, including Angel Flight, will need good weather conditions and visibility to land
But there are concerns that bureaucracy and red tape may stop others from using the same service.
Angel Flight is a charity that connects country people with specialist medical treatment not available close by.
More than 200 Angel Flights were scheduled in and out of the remote coastal town of Mallacoota in the past year.
Ms Hannah, 73, was flown on an Angel Flight from Mallacoota to Canberra for urgent specialist elective surgery after her condition deteriorated and she was unable to walk.
“Airports save lives. I couldn’t have gone and had that operation without the flights,” she said.
“We have so many other people here who have as much need as I did, or more.”
Airports unable to meet new regulations
A Civil Aviation Safety Authority spokesperson said six out of 350 airports affected by new regulations did not transition to updated rules by a May deadline, including Mallacoota Airport.
The other airports, aerodromes, and airfields were:
- Granny Smith Aerodrome in Laverton, WA
- Middlemount Airport in Queensland
- Coolah Airport in NSW
- Kalumburu Aerodrome in WA; and
- Southport Airfield in Coombabah, Queensland
East Gippsland Shire Council recently decided against funding upgrades to the Mallacoota Airport to bring it up to new CASA standards.
While the airport remains functional, the council has had to de-certify it. That means instrument flight procedures are prohibited.
From now on, planes can only land at Mallacoota in conditions where the pilot can physically see the runway, which is difficult in a coastal town prone to variable weather conditions.
Angel Flight chief executive Marjorie Pagani said the airport changes could affect flights landing at Mallacoota.
“The majority of [Angel Flight planes] most of our pilots are instrument-rated, “she said.
Ms Pagani said flights might now have to be diverted to Merimbula.
“What we’re there for is to get these people in and out safely, and once you take away those instrument approaches you are very much impinging on safety,” she said.
“It’s not enough to say we’ll fly only on fine days. It doesn’t work.”
Limited health services in Mallacoota
With only two doctors to service more than 1,100 residents, Mallacoota Medical Center practice principal Sara Renwick-Lau said aeromedical services were essential for the community.
She said her practice referred patients to Angel Flight twice a week.
“The potential delay in treatment of critically-ill patients that require aeromedical transport is a big concern,” Dr Renwick-Lau said.
“When we do get someone who’s critically unwell it’s about how can we retrieve them as quickly as possible. That scenario to me is pretty night marish.”
Nearly half of Mallacoota’s population is aged over 60, but Dr Renwick-Lau said aeromedical services were even more vital during holiday periods.
“We have 8,000-10,000 people over the holiday period. A lot of those people come with their medical illnesses and we manage them in Mallacoota,” she said.
“There’s actually no urgent care facility, emergency department, or anything that you would recognize as a public health service in Mallacoota.”
East Gippsland Shire Council mayor Mark Reeves said more funding was needed for infrastructure, earthworks, and vegetation management around the airport to meet CASA’s standards.
“The total cost is so astronomical that it hasn’t even been part of our budgeting process,” Mr Reeves said.
“It came as such a shock and a surprise. The estimation is millions of dollars.”
Council calls on federal government to step in
The local council will begin advocating for federal and state government funds to complete the airport upgrades to meet certification requirements.
“The issue is the risk to the federal government,” Mr Reeves said.
“This will be the first of hundreds of regional airports around Australia that will topple like dominoes as a result of these CASA regulations.
“If the federal government starts funding the upgrade of those they’ll be up for hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Mr Reeves said council was consulting with the Australian Airports Association, but assured Ambulance Victoria and other emergency services could obtain permission to land using the instrument flight approach.
“We actually need to stop CASA in its tracks and have an outbreak of common sense around their bureaucracy,” he said.
Airports body disagrees with CASA standards
Chief executive of the Australian Airports Association James Goodwin said the CASA regulations should not be applied to remote airports.
“Complying with the new regulation means you are competing and staying at a very high international standard, and those standards would be the same at Sydney airport or Melbourne International airport for instance,” he said.
“Visual flight routes are still available to aircraft operators and hundreds of aerodromes across Australia use that system.
“In an aerodrome that is not particularly busy, that is a very acceptable way of operating that airport.”
CASA said grant options and exemptions were offered to smaller aerodromes, though the council did not apply for either on behalf of the Mallacoota Airport.
“Grandfathering provisions applied to existing facilities, including Mallacoota Airport, so smaller aerodromes did not need costly work to meet the new standards,” CASA said.
“No infrastructure changes were required as part of the transition process.”
Angel Flight staff were frustrated the council did not consult with them prior to de-certifying the airport.
“To start talking to us now is far too little too late,” Ms Pagani said.