Mallacoota airport decertification is one of five banning Angel Flight instrument landings

When Mallacoota resident Ruth Hannah suffered from extreme anemia and an upset stomach last year, an Angel Flight changed her life.

But there are concerns that bureaucracy and bureaucracy will prevent others from using the same service.

Angel Flight is a charity that connects rural people with specialist medical treatment not available nearby.

More than 200 Angel flights have been scheduled to and from the remote coastal town of Mallacoota over the past year.

Ms Hannah, 73, was airlifted 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 there and had this surgery if not for the flights,” she said.

“We have so many other people here who need as much as I do, if not more.”

Airports unable to meet new regulations

A spokesperson for the Civil Aviation Safety Authority said six of the 350 airports affected by the new regulations had not switched to the updated rules by the May deadline, including the airport of Mallacoata.

The other airports, airfields and aerodromes were:

  • Granny Smith Airfield in Laverton, WA
  • Middlemount Airport in Queensland
  • Coolah Airport in New South Wales
  • Kalumburu Airfield in WA; and
  • Southport Airfield in Coombabah, Queensland
Angel Flight assists passengers traveling to or from medical facilities almost anywhere in Australia.(Supplied: Angel Flight)

The East Gippsland Shire Council recently decided not to fund upgrades to Mallacoota Airport to bring it up to the new CASA standards.

While the airport remains functional, the council had to decertify it. This means that instrument flight procedures are prohibited.

Now planes can only land in Mallacoota in conditions where the pilot can physically see the runway, which is difficult in a coastal city prone to variable weather conditions.

Angel Flight chief executive Marjorie Pagani said the airport changes could affect flights landing in Mallacoota.

“The majority of [Angel Flight planes] use instrument approaches. Most of our pilots are instrument rated,” she said.

Aerial view of Mallacoota Airport
Angel Flight CEO Marjorie Pagani said the service isn’t letting Mallacoota residents down.(Supplied: Country Airstrips Australia)

Ms Pagani said flights may now have to be diverted to Merimbula.

“What we’re here for is to get these people in and out safely, and once you remove these instrument approaches, you’re very much intruding on security,” she said.

“It’s not enough to say that we will only fly on sunny days. It does not work.”

Limited health services in Mallacoota

With just two physicians to serve more than 1,100 residents, Mallacoota Medical Center Chief of Practice Sara Renwick-Lau said aeromedical services were essential to the community.

She said her practice refers patients to Angel Flight twice a week.

“The potential delay in treating critically ill patients who require aeromedical transport is of great concern,” Dr Renwick-Lau said.

“When we get someone who is seriously ill, it’s about how can we get them back as quickly as possible. This scenario for me is quite nightmarish.”

Dr. Sara Renwick-Lau of Signature Medical Center
Dr Sara Renwick-Lau of Mallacoota Medical Center says Angel Flight losing access to the airport is a concern.(Provided: Dr. Sara Renwick-Lau )

Almost half of Mallacoota’s population is over the age of 60, but Dr Renwick-Lau said aeromedical services are even more vital during holiday periods.

“We have 8,000 to 10,000 people during the holiday season. Many of these people come with their illnesses and we manage them in Mallacoota,” she said.

“There are actually no urgent care facilities, emergency departments, or anything that you would recognize as a public health department 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 standards.

“The total cost is so astronomical that it didn’t even make it into our budgeting process,” Mr Reeves said.

“It was such a shock and such a surprise. The estimate is millions of dollars.”

The Council asks the federal government to intervene

The local council will begin seeking federal and state funds to complete airport upgrades to meet certification requirements.

Mark Reeves, EGSC Mayor
Mayor Mark Reeves said CASA’s bylaw changes were “bureaucratic madness”.(Provided: A Gippsland)

“The problem is the risk to the federal government,” Mr. Reeves said.

“This will be the first of hundreds of regional airports around Australia that will collapse like dominoes as a result of these CASA regulations.

“If the federal government starts funding the upgrade of these, they will cost hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Mr Reeves said the board was consulting with the Australian Airports Association but assured that Ambulance Victoria and other emergency services could obtain clearance to land using the instrument flight approach.

“We actually need to stop CASA in its tracks and smash common sense around their bureaucracy,” he said.

The airport body does not agree with the CASA standards

Australian Airports Association chief executive James Goodwin said CASA regulations should not apply to remote airports.

James Goodwin, CEO of the Australian Airports Association
James Goodwin disagrees with CASA’s application of the Small Airports Regulations.(Provided: James Goodwin)

“Complying with the new regulations means you compete and stay at a very high international standard, and those standards would be the same at Sydney airport or Melbourne international airport for example,” a- he declared.

“Visual flight routes are still available to aircraft operators and hundreds of airfields across Australia use this system.

“In an airfield that isn’t particularly busy, that’s a very acceptable way to operate that airport.”

CASA said subsidy options and exemptions were available to smaller airfields, although the board did not request either on behalf of Mallacoota Airport.

“The grandfathering provisions applied to existing facilities, including Mallacoota Airport, so smaller airfields did not need expensive work to meet the new standards,” CASA said.

“No infrastructure changes were necessary as part of the transition process.”

Angel Flight staff were frustrated that the board had not consulted with them before decertifying the airport.

“To start talking to us now is too little too late,” Ms Pagani said.

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