Australian Airports Association: OPS SWAP conference

2022 OPS SWAP Forum
Pip Spence
Chief Executive Officer and Director of Aviation Safety


Hi everyone and thank you to James for inviting me to speak today at the Ops Swap forum.

I would like to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional Custodians of the land on which we’re meeting today, and their continuing connection to land, water and community and pay my respect to elders past, present and emerging.

I also extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people present today.

Recent years have been difficult for the entire aviation industry, but I know they have been particularly hard for airports.

Passenger traffic plummeted to an unsustaining trickle, skilled staff were forced to leave the industry and revenue streams dried up.

Of course, as with all things COVID, the impact has not been uniform and a number of you have created new business opportunities and changed your focus to attract new activities.

It is a testament to the resilience of the airport sector to see all of you here today.

We’re all still grappling with the ongoing impact of the Covid pandemic but the Easter traffic surge, while problematic in some ways, showed people were again keen to travel.

This was reinforced by last month’s update from Qantas that domestic traffic recovery was ahead of expectations, and I think we’re all looking forward to the day when the situation stabilises.

While Qantas’ international capacity for the same period was still expected to be less than half of the 2019 level — it is growing rapidly.

The Airports Council International Asia-Pacific is also seeing green shoots in our region and, despite some headwinds from fuel prices, this bodes well not just for airline employees but for airport staff and other ground crew.

We’re mindful that this rapid return to normal will put pressure on everyone from the pilot to the passenger to the ground crew and we will be looking to see how we can help with the safe return to pre-pandemic activity.

PART 139 Aerodromes

One thing the pandemic did not stop was the transition to Part 139.

The deadline for the switch to the new regulations passed on 13 May and I would like to thank you and the team at CASA who put in the demanding work through these difficult times to complete the change.

We could not have done this without you. I’m pleased to say all the former registered aerodromes that were expected to transition to the new rules have now done so.

We all knew that Part 139 needed review and that it failed to reflect not just the operating requirements of new generation aircraft, but significant advances in technology and changes to aerodrome operations.

Our aim was to simplify and clarify the requirements to reduce the regulatory burden and costs on aerodromes while at the same time improving safety.

One key change was to make certificates scalable to reflect the size and frequency of operations at an aerodrome because we knew there wasn’t one size that fitted all.

The changes allow for far more flexibility for aerodromes in terms of outcome-based legislation.

What does that mean in practice? We focus on the results we want but don’t dictate a specific action or process that must be followed.

You know your business and will be able to determine how best to get those results.

With the May deadline now gone, we will be watching how the part 139 rules operate to see if any improvements are needed.

We’re as keen as you are to identify and resolve any issues with the way the regulations work in practice. We can only do that if you work with us and let us know about anything that seems like an unintended consequence.

Wider reforms

The Part 139 changes are an example of the ongoing program of reform CASA is undertaking to deal with issues industry has raised with us while we also refine the structure of the organisation itself.

We are committed to improving transparency, communicating our intentions in a timely manner and explaining ourselves clearly.

We want to work with industry to reduce complexity while making sure Australia remains one of the safest aviation environments in the world.

In addition to reforms on Part 139, our new flight operations regulations came into effect in December and we recently released our General Aviation Workplan.

Our General Aviation Workplan is an important initiative that largely aims to reduce the regulatory burden for private and recreational aviation users, many of them your users.

We are continually working to improve our new website and earlier last month we responded to feedback by releasing a new ‘mega-menu’ designed to improve navigation and make content easier to discover.

We’ve beefed up staffing at our Client Service Centre to deal with increased demand after the opening of the COVID floodgates produced a deluge of requests.

You’ll also recall the Guidance Delivery centre was set up to provide a nationally consistent response to queries and prevent the potential for confusion when people received differing answers from various parts of CASA.

This is consistent with our push to break down the silos at CASA to allow it to function better as a national organisation.

While there have been some teething problems, we believe this national model will ultimately facilitate clearer and better communication with you and other industry sectors.

Mapping the future

While these initiatives are underway, we’ve also been devoting a lot of thought to the significant changes we see ahead.

We see airports playing an important part in this future.

We need to be on the front foot when those changes arrive, and this means we need to look at issues proactively rather than reactively.

Developments such as electric vertical take-off and landing, or eVTOL, aircraft are expected to form the backbone of a new advanced air mobility sector and we’ve seen the rapid expansion of remotely piloted aircraft systems.

These developments have wide implications for all sectors of the industry, including yours.

We need to modify our airspace so that everyone can share the skies and that includes the airspace around airports.

There is no reason both crewed and uncrewed aircraft cannot operate from an airport.

Shared airspace is a goal we are working towards and, while the situation is complex, it is evolving quickly.

This is why we are working with industry, governments and other agencies to map out a strategy.

A key part of this effort to define a long-term regulatory vision for these new sectors is the RPAS and Advanced Air Mobility Strategic Regulatory Roadmap we are about to release after a generally positive consultation period.

The roadmap is intended to provide clarity about the CASA’s future approach to aviation safety regulation and safety oversight.

We worked with stakeholders to develop the roadmap from the ground up in regulatory areas ranging from airspace design to licensing, operational certificates and flight rules.

Consultation on the roadmap generated 109 responses including comments from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Complementing the roadmap is the work our Future Strategies Taskforce is doing to identify the major activities CASA — and in some case other government agencies — needs to get ready for emerging technologies that are farther into the future.

To help us do that, the taskforce launched a public survey seeking information on emerging technologies and other capabilities that could affect the way we regulate civil aviation.

The survey, which closes 4 June, invites designers, inventors, manufacturers, universities and other interested parties to share information about new developments they expect to see deployed in aviation in the next 3 to 10 years.

The survey identifies a range of technologies that CASA already knows about, and we are particularly interested in hearing about any technologies or developments that are currently outside our view.

Airports and change

But enough about us — what about you?

As we all know, change means opportunity and we see a number of potential openings for airports in this new world of shared airspace and advanced technology.

We’ve started working with several Australian operators who have ordered electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft about how and where they can be used.

There is a lot of discussion about vertiports and advanced air mobility, but you may be surprised to learn the concept is not as radical or new as people think it is.

The most famous vertiport in the world at one stage was this building – and it operated in the 1960s.

New York Airways ran what can best be described as an ‘air taxi’ service between various airports and heliports in Manhattan.

It operated flights between New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and the top of the Pan Am building from 1965 to 1968 and then for a few months in 1977 before an unfortunate crash ended operations.

At one stage, there were 23 helicopter flights per day between the building and Pan Am’s terminal at JFK.

This allowed passengers to check in at the airline’s headquarters 40 minutes before their scheduled departure from JFK.

Fast forward to 2022 and airports around the world are looking at safely implementing similar services. An eVTOL company working with Rome’s Fiuminco Airport, for example, has predicted it will have services running in the next two to three years.

Last month, a UK company called Urban-Air Port launched a proof-of-concept vertiport called Air One in the English city of Coventry.

The doughnut-like building is designed as a hub for aircraft such as eVTOL air taxis and drones operating across areas ranging from delivery to disaster management.

Imagine bringing something like that to Margaret River during the tourism high season so that an eVTOL air taxi operation can ferry passengers from Busselton airport?

When traffic dropped off it could simply redeploy to another tourism hotspot.

Again, the challenge for CASA, and our colleagues at Airservices Australia, is to design and implement airspace around airports than can give everyone fair access to the skies.

The assumption is that eVTOL aircraft will initially be piloted but we can already see long-term research underway to make them remotely piloted and, eventually, autonomous.

There will be no easy answers but as the old Chinese proverb says: the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

We are already finding ways to allow small remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) to operate in the vicinity of airports.

Conducted in partnership with Airservices, the Automated Airspace Authorisations Trial allows digital airspace authorisations near major airports in Canberra, Adelaide and Perth.

Commercial operators of drones weighing less than 25 kilos can streamline requests for flights within the 5.5 KM restricted airspace around the three airports.

The system checks requests against the data held by CASA and Airservices to decide whether the operation can be automatically authorised.

If approved, operators are quickly notified via a CASA-verified drone safety app.

The trial has been a huge success with more than 200 operators approved to take part and three app providers facilitating authorisations.

We recently extended the trial until November and we are expanding the coverage to include two new airports.

It means a professional photographer who once needed to apply for authorisation a minimum of 21 days in advance can now apply at 9am and be on site that afternoon with a tick from the regulator.

Which is great for professional photographers but what does it mean for you?

Essentially, it shows we can have remotely piloted aircraft operating in controlled airspace with the right authorisations.

It is a step on the road leading to multiple users accessing airspace around airports.

Imagine a scenario where large autonomous aircraft are ferrying cargo from a freight hub on one side of the airport to suburban distribution centres, while airline passengers are hopping on to eVTOL air taxis on the other.

Sensible restrictions

Obviously, we’re not looking at an RPAS free-for-all near airports; we want a sensible and controlled system which will still see restrictions.

The incident at London’s Gatwick Airport in 2018 demonstrated how even a report of drones in the wrong place can cause havoc.

CASA had been looking at drone detection prior to Gatwick and has continued to work with other agencies to ensure we’re at the forefront of the technology.

A joint project by CASA, Airservices and the Department of Defence covering most controlled aerodromes nationwide aims to detect unauthorised incursions into the 5.5km zone surrounding airports.

We’re constantly reviewing the data we receive from that surveillance so we can launch educational campaigns or engage directly with a pilot or organisation.

We work with local government, associations and businesses to spread the message about unwanted incursions while targeting peak drone-buying times such as Christmas.

Campaigns in Alice Springs, Newcastle and the Gold Coast have had a positive impact and we recently began a project in Sydney after the number of unlawful drone detections in the no-fly zone of a controlled aerodrome rose by almost 20 per cent.

Local authorities, community, airports and other industry players are again helping with a targeted safety education campaign involving drone safety signage and other techniques to get the message across.

On the ground

Not everything at an airport flies and we are also turning our attention to the use of potentially autonomous ground vehicles powered by alternative fuel sources such as electricity or hydrogen.

Research is underway in the US on electrically powered tugs that can move aircraft autonomously between pre-determined waypoints such as gates, taxiways and runways.

Robotic baggage carts have already been trialled in airports such as Singapore’s Changi and London Heathrow.

Birmingham Airport and Solihull Council recently unveiled a self-driving shuttle known as a connected autonomous vehicle that can carry up to 10 passengers through local roads to the airport.

Other ground-based technologies we are examining include addressable LED lighting and we are also keeping an eye on 5G towers near airports.

The 5G issue has not had the same impact in Australia as it has in the US given that — at least for now — the frequencies on which our telcos operate are lower than those used by their American counterparts.

But we are watching this closely and we have asked people to tell us about discrepancies with aircraft radio altimeters potentially affected by some 5G transmissions.

We have received reports of discrepancies, but we have yet to confirm that a problem is linked to 5G interference.

We are talking to our counterparts in the US and Europe and the Australian Communications and Media Authority as we continue to monitor the situation.

We are also working with airports through the Radio Altimeter Coordination Group on ACMA’s proposal to re-allocate radio frequency spectrum in the 3.4 Gigahertz and 3.7 GHz bands.

You can follow developments on this issue through updates periodically issued in airworthiness bulletins.

A new approach

As I mentioned earlier, we have seen many airports in recent years moving to diversify their revenue streams by developing non-aviation land for commercial uses.

Sometimes the proposed land use comes into conflict with the best aviation safety practices.

There are global discussions underway about changes to the obstacle limitation surfaces —or OLS — system.

The OLS System was implemented by the International Civil Aviation Organization in 1950 and last fully overhauled some four decades ago.

This system has served airports well by limiting the growth of nearby obstacles that affect safe aircraft operations.

However, there have been significant developments in aircraft and airspace management technology over that time and we now know the position of an aeroplane with much more precision.

As a result, ICAO has been investigating how the OLS system can be updated and CASA has been monitoring these developments so we can be ready for any changes.

After six years of extensive work, ICAO is proposing significant changes with new nomenclature and new surfaces that are expected to be more flexible.

From an airport perspective, this could see restrictions relaxed on airspace that is not required to protect aviation operations under the new system but is currently out of bounds to high intensity development.

ICAO is soliciting feedback and is working towards an applicability date of 2026, so watch this space.


Things may be looking up but we are not out of the woods yet.

Staff resourcing at airports as pent-up demand for travel surged created delays at airports not just in Australia but around the world.

The issue of traffic growth and terminal congestion will no doubt continue to be a headache even when traffic returns to “normal”, although I know you have strategies such as the introduction of biometrics to address this.

Nonetheless, I think we’re all hoping International Air Transport Association director general Willie Walsh was correct when he told Reuters last month that overall industry traffic would be back to pre-pandemic levels next year.

This would be a year ahead of IATA’s original forecast.

Our aim at CASA is to help you and other sectors of the industry recover from the horrors of recent years and prepare for changes that are on the way.

We look forward to hearing your opinions and plans and working with you as we progress.

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