The poor are allowed to die

2012-02-13 00:00

IN recent months headlines have been full of stories involving buses­, school buses and mini-bus taxis where up to 20 or more people had died. Those vehicles and their drivers would all fall into the category­ of commercial passenger road transport (CPRT).

I have been a private pilot for 47 years with thousands of accident-free flying hours to my credit. The circumstances detailed above made me reflect on the situation around private and recreational pilots­. The environment they operate­ in is so controlled and regulated by the state that one would believe, compared to CPRT, that private pilots operate on a different planet.

Whenever the state gets involved in activities of citizens, one should expect even-handedness in terms of measures imposed. The South African Civil Aviation Authority (Sacaa) has its own department in the Department of Transport, but I fail to see a similar department dealing with CPRT in the same ministry.

Let’s start with the medical examination­. A private pilot has to undergo an annual medical examination. What purpose does it serve? Why would a bus or mini-bus taxi driver, involved in CPRT, not be requested to do the same?

How many pilots cause accidents due to a heart attack or because they did not see the other plane in the air?

In case of an aircraft accident, the Sacaa is quick to investigate and try to establish the cause in order­ to make recommendations so that such an accident may be avoided in the future. What happens in the case of a bus accident where 20 pupils are killed at one time? What rules and regulations are then put in place?

Yes, I hear my fellow pilots arguing that aviation should not lower their standards because another part of the transport sector is not regulated.

This is not the point. The issue is the involvement of the state, which seems to have singled out a small group of mostly above-average educated and, as a result of their training, more safety-conscious individuals, who require controlling. It is all about balance in a society. In all my years as a pilot I have never seen a drunk pilot entering a plane. Can we say the same for bus and mini-bus taxi drivers?

I maintain that — unless someone with the statistical facts proves me wrong — in one year more people­ are killed in CPRT accidents in South Africa than in private aviation (excluding the airlines and commercial charter operators) in the past 100 years of its existence.

Let’s move on to the biannual licence­ renewal and the check flight which goes with it. A few years ago a requirement was introduced for a renewal check flight to be preceded by an oral examination of sort. Again it begs the question — how does this compare with the drivers involved in CPRT? Apart from numerous bogus driver’s licences­, no similar examination to that which the private pilot is subjected, apply there.

Let’s look at the mandatory periodic­ inspection (MPI) of privately owned aircraft. If the compulsory 100 hours are exceeded by only one hour, the poor pilot has to beg the Sacaa for forgiveness.

How does this compare to the treatment of mini-bus taxis and buses (in particular school buses) involved in CPRT? Which department in the Department of Transport regularly checks the roadworthiness of vehicles involved in CPRT or private­ vehicles for that matter?

On my aeroplane, because it falls into the category of certificated aircraft, I am not even allowed to change a defective tyre myself. If there is such a problem and it occurs­ in a remote location, I have to get a certified engineer to fly in at great cost to do it for me.

How does this compare to mini-bus taxis and buses? Why can’t the airworthiness of aeroplanes not be left to be regulated between pilots and their insurance companies?

The argument is that the Sacaa operates on the basis of regulations and laws.

Comparisons with international practices will even be cited. Why then do such regulations and laws not exist for everyone involved in CPRT?

When it comes to international best practices, I am aware how stiff the rules and regulations for taxis and buses in, for example, Germany are. So, why not copy these as examples of best practice?

However, who would dare take on the minibus-taxi industry in South Africa? It is much easier to single out a small minority of private pilots. We use the lame excuse that many things cannot be implemented for political reasons. Private­ pilots do not accept this.

The government does not miss an opportunity to point out that it is pro-poor. Strangely enough, the poor of this country (and not private pilots) are using CPRT on a daily basis­ — and die on a daily basis. It appears that the poor are allowed to die under the eyes of the Department of Transport, while one of the departments is too busy harassing a small and safety conscious minority under the banner of safety.

The Drive Alive Campaign for the general public is a joke and a waste of taxpayers’ money if not backed by stiff regulations and, in particular, law enforcement for CPRT.

The poor people of South Africa would be far better off if the staff of the Sacaa were halved and the other half used to establish a controlling body for CPRT. Sufficient bureaucratic experience is already available.

Over the years I have seen my aviation medical officer (AMO) increasingly being visited by inspectors of the Sacaa, tying qualified­ engineers to the desk to fill out reams paper for various inspection purposes. This contrasts with the declining number of qualified staff our AMOs are able to find in this country.

All pilots know that the probability of a problem is the highest when the aircraft is returned to the pilot after an MPI.

Like doctors and engineers, aircraft mechanics have left the country in droves. The state-owned SAA has conveniently replaced many of the lost ones by recruiting (robbing) from the private sector. Here lurks the real safety issue of the years to come.

The dearth of qualified mechanics cannot be compensated for by an increased number of inspectors.

Here the DOT is going about things the wrong way.

Why does the government not reduce the bloated staff of the Sacaa and rather use the money to establish a state-run training facility for aircraft mechanics. The few existing mechanics will soon retire and will be lost to aviation with dire consequences for safety.

As long as they are still around, one could use them as trainers in such a facility.

The Sacaa has on occasion expressed concern over the increased number of non-type certificated aircraft in this country. This is no surprise, as many private pilots have just had enough of being harassed­, while the people involved in CPRT get no attention.

In my opinion pilots should stand up and no longer accept that they are singled out as opposed to CPRT.

They should mobilise and sit down with the minister (not the Sacaa) and discuss a way forward to bring back a balance. Private aviation does not exist as an island in this country.

There are some specifics to the activities of private pilots, but they have to be seen in the perspective of other spheres of traffic, in particular CPRT.

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