A PAPUA New Guinea-based airline is likely to be embroiled in a legal war with Australian civil aviation authorities following widespread opposition its successful application to operate an unscheduled passenger and cargo service in two Australian states.
Australia’s civil aviation watchdog, Civil Aviation Safety Authority, has refused – for the second time – to issue an operating licence to Port Moresby-based Trans Air Ltd because of what it termed the airline’s “unauthorised” medivac flights between PNG and Australia in the past three years.
Trans Air principal Les Wright is also in CASA’s bad books because of his past association with an Australian company of a similar name whose aircraft was involved in Australia’s worst air tragedy in 40 years, at Lockhart River, Queensland, in May 2005.
Fifteen people – two pilots and 13 passengers – were killed.
Trans Air and Mr Wright’s latest run-in with CASA has been extensively covered by The Australian newspaper in the past couple of weeks, sparking outrage and distress among families of those killed in the crash because of Mr Wright’s continued involvement in air operations.
While the legal battle looms, the PNG Civil Aviation Authority told The National yesterday to “please hold off on this issue for a while”.
The PNG Aviation Safety Management chief executive officer, Wilson Sagati, said: “I have more pressing issues concerning the management of this organisation, which are my priority, than talking to the media on this matter.”
However, PNG aviation industry sources said both bodies should explain why Mr Wright was issued a licence to operate in PNG, in light of the recent aviation safety record in PNG.
The Australian broke the story on Jan 30 under the headline, “Crash-airline owner Les Wright flying under CASA’s radar”.
It reported: “Mr Wright, who holds high-level commercial flying licences for Papua New Guinea and Australia, has continued flying for his family-owned, PNG-based charter business with a similar name, Trans Air Ltd.
“Last week, Trans Air was revealed to have made hundreds of medivac flights into Australia from PNG without getting permission from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.”
These “illegal” flights, according to the newspaper, came to light last month when CASA considered, and rejected, Trans Air’s application to carry passengers and cargo along the Queensland coast to the Northern Territory.
Trans Air successfully appealed to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal which directed CASA to issue a foreign aircraft air operating certificate to Trans Air.
But, according to The Australian, which quoted a CASA spokesman, the agency was reviewing the AAT decision and considering its legal options.
“The AAT has directed CASA to issue the certificate,” the spokesman said.
“At this point in time, we haven’t and we have gone back to the AAT and we are looking at our options.”
A spokeswoman for Australian transport minister Anthony Albanese said the matter was in CASA’s hands.
“We absolutely understand the concerns of the victims’ families,” he said.
Lockhart River mayor Rodney Accoom said he was angry Mr Wright was still involved with airlines.
“To hear that he’s still operating … the government should wake up to themselves.”
A spokesman for opposition transport spokesman Warren Truss said: “CASA needs to take this as far as they think they can.”
Trans Air and Mr Wright had claimed the medivac flights had been allowed on the basis of an oral permission given to Mr Wright back in 1998.