Flying commercially and privately in Australia

Stating the facts

Australia's aviation safety regulations are designed to keep you safe every time you fly but you need to be aware that the rules can vary according to the classification of the activity, an aircraft and its pilot.

Cairns airport

Our rules cover how pilots are licensed, who can maintain the aircraft, who the operator is and what permissions they need. The rules also include requirements for aircraft to be registered, as well as certification and airworthiness standards.

Airlines and other commercial operators face more stringent requirements than private pilots, although there are safety obligations both must meet.

When you get into a car with a neighbour or friend there are different rules than if you are getting into a taxi or bus. These include different types of licences, maintenance requirements and who is responsible in the event of an accident and how they are 'checked'.

This is the same for aviation. When you fly with a friend or family member, you are probably flying privately. The pilot must be appropriately licenced, the aircraft must be airworthy, and it's the pilot's responsibility to ensure these requirements have been met.

However, the safety standard applied to private flights is not as stringent as the standards applied to commercial flights.

On the other hand, commercial flights can include everything from flying with a major airline, scenic flights and what are commonly referred to as 'charter' flights.

Charter flights are where you hire a company with a plane to fly you somewhere. Examples of this might be fly-in, fly-out flights or they could be flights put on for a specific event or reason. In some ways, these are like hiring a bus company or a limousine to drive your guests somewhere.

Commercial operators need to be approved to operate by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) and are subject to regular and routine oversight activities to make sure that they continue to operate safely.

Here is some further information on each.

Commercial operators

All commercial aviation operations in Australia are subject to strict approval requirements and oversight by CASA.

Any operator transporting passengers, including activities such as a scenic flight, must hold an approval from CASA called an Air Operator's Certificate (AOC).

This requires the operator to meet certain safety standards and have the correct licences, personnel and insurance. The operator is responsible for making sure that anyone who flies for them, or works on their planes, is appropriately licenced by CASA.

Commercial or air transport pilots must have a specific pilot licence that allows them to fly commercially and must meet higher medical standards. They have to carry their licence at all times and are subject to random drug and alcohol testing.

Undertaking commercial aviation activities without an AOC is illegal and can result in significant penalties.

An AOC is only granted following a comprehensive assessment process. This includes the assessment and approval of 'key personnel' who remain accountable for the safety of the operation and compliance with regulations. Key personnel include the:

  • Chief Executive Officer (or equivalent)
  • Head of flying operations (or Chief Pilot), who has the primary responsibility for, and must manage, the safety and compliance of the flying operations
  • A person responsible for continuing airworthiness, such as a Head of Airworthiness and Maintenance Controller (HAAMC).

Following initial approvals, an AOC holder must apply to CASA for any significant changes to their operations. This includes matters such as adding new aircraft to their fleet, adding another base of operations or seeking to appoint a new person into regulated (key personnel) role.

CASA's role in overseeing passenger-carrying commercial operations is extensive. Routine surveillance is conducted by way of periodic site visits which are informed by CASA's assessment of the risks associated with a particular operator. Surveillance assesses an AOC holder's ability to manage its safety risks and compliance with safety regulations. It can include operational checks, testing of systems and gathering evidence and data.

CASA also conducts unscheduled surveillance when an operator comes to CASA's attention as a result of credible reports about alleged unsafe conduct involving or information provided by other aviation agencies. This can include random audits or 'ramp checks' conducted on any flight.

CASA publishes the details of AOC approvals and also the outcomes of enforcement action resulting from serious non-compliance relating to AOC holders on our website.

In some cases, the company you buy the ticket from might not be the company who is legally responsible for operating the flight – for example, it might be a tour operator or travel agent. If you are not sure who is operating the flight, you can ask for more information about who the approved aviation operator (AOC holder) is and check those details on our website.

CASA encourages reporting of any suspected unsafe behaviour or commercial operations without our approval.

Private pilots

A private operation is a trip flown by a person with private or recreational pilot's licence. You cannot 'buy' a ticket, or in most cases, otherwise 'pay' for a private flight. These are flights usually organised between friends or family and the pilot directly.

Private flights do not have to meet the same safety standards as commercial flights.

Private pilots have sole responsibility for the conduct of the flight and must operate strictly in accordance with the aviation safety rules and in the interest of ensuring air safety.

They must have a current medical certificate, a valid licence and the appropriate endorsements to fly certain aircraft in particular conditions. They must also have had a recent flight review – which is another routine check to keep their skills current.

They are required to carry their licence and medical certificate with them when acting as pilot in command of an aircraft.

Private pilots are also subject to CASA surveillance but not to the same extent as commercial operators.

We oversee private pilots though our licensing system, reports from the aviation industry or passengers and random spot checks at airports and aerodromes.

We conduct surveillance on private pilots if it comes to our attention that a pilot is not compliant. Information may be obtained from a number of sources, including industry intelligence or by information from passengers and other witnesses. We can also conduct ramp checks as part of our general surveillance process. These can be part of planned surveillance of a particular area, aerodrome or airfield, or as a one-off. CASA can conduct ramp checks at aerodromes or airfields.

Flying on a private plane is similar to travelling in a private car or boat  – passengers need to know who's at the helm or driving the car to make a decision as to whether they are comfortable flying with them.

CASA encourages reporting of any suspected unsafe behaviour.

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