The reporter expressed a safety concern in relation to the way [service provider] bills aircraft operators.
The reporter advised that on numerous occasions over a number of years, they have received invoices from [service provider] for landing at airports which they have not landed at. At the time, they were transiting the CTAF and made radio calls to alert other airspace users. The reporter advised that [service provider] charge the operator of any aircraft which makes a radio call on the CTAF which is associated with an aerodrome they are contracted to bill for. This is regardless of whether the aircraft actually lands at the airport. The safety implications of this are that pilots are now hesitant to make radio calls on the CTAF as they know they will receive a bill from [service provider] which they will then have to dispute to have the charges waived.
Reporter’s comment: The behaviour of [service provider] and airport operators in this manner compromises air safety, as pilots who are transiting a CTAF are less likely to communicate with other aircraft if they believe they will be incorrectly charged for aviation services. This presents a hazard to all aircraft flying in the airspace, as well as to members of the public who may be engaged in aviation activities such as parachute activities.
Operator's response (Operator 1)
[Service provider] provides data reporting and billing services to a number of airports across Australia. Invoices are issued on behalf of airport operators for airport usage charges such as aircraft landing and training activity, aircraft parking and passenger charges. These services allow local councils and other airport operators to recover some of the costs of operating airport facilities from those who use them.
Use of an airport by an aircraft is detected by a variety of means. One of these is transcription of pilot radio broadcasts. Broadcasts on the CTAF for the relevant airport are transcribed into a report of airport landing and training events which may then be used as a basis for generation of invoices.
The reporter is not correct in alleging that '[Service provider] charge the operator of any aircraft which makes a radio call on the CTAF'. [Service provider] does not and will not apply a charge on behalf of an airport for an aircraft to transit through the CTAF area without making use of the airport facility. An invoice is issued only when the available data leads to the conclusion that a billable use of the airport has occurred.
Occasionally, an aircraft action such as an overflight may be recorded by one of [service provider’s] data sources and misinterpreted as use of the airport facility. If an aircraft operator is concerned that a charge may have been incorrectly applied then they should contact [service provider] to lodge a query. [Service provider] accounts staff will then investigate the source data and make an invoice adjustment if required. [Service provider] would welcome the provision of further details (including aircraft registration, airport code, date and time) in order for us to investigate the specific circumstances of the concerns raised by the reporter.
[Service provider] has a clear and ongoing interest in improving the quality and reliability of available airport usage data. Our airport clients rely on this information in order to manage and maintain their facilities to the level expected by users and their communities. When customers raise concerns with us about particular circumstances in which they have been incorrectly charged, we endeavour to discover why the problem has occurred and how procedures may be improved to reduce the likelihood of it happening again.
When pilots ensure that their radio calls clearly communicate their activities (in compliance with government regulations), they not only contribute to the safety of all aircraft in that airspace but they also help those who are responsible for maintaining local airport and aerodrome infrastructure to better understand who is using their facilities and to meet the needs of those users. Air safety is not compromised by record keeping and accountability.
Regulator's response (Regulator 1)
On 08 February 2018 the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) responded that - the reported matter appeared to be largely commercial in nature and best resolved by [service provider] and the reporter (aircraft operator).
In a follow up email on 20 February 2018 you sought assurance that CASA did not hold a concern that an erroneous charge for the use of an aerodrome facility could lead to a systemic safety issue.
[Service provider’s] response to the REPCON suggested that charging errors are rare and when they occur they can be resolved. CASA has no reason to doubt the veracity of this claim.
The premise that the pilot of an overflying aircraft might choose not to make a radio broadcast when in the vicinity of an aerodrome for fear that they may inadvertently be charged an aerodrome use fee which they may not be able to subsequently recover is improbable. By extension any widespread (systemic) issue of the same nature is extremely improbable. Nevertheless, CASA does recognise that such a potential might exist.
In an effort to mitigate the risk associated with this potential CASA will undertake an education campaign in the second half of 2018 to ensure all pilots and flight instructors correctly understand the radio procedures to be used when operating in uncontrolled airspace in the vicinity of an aerodrome. The campaign will include information describing the procedures used by [service provider] to prevent transiting aircraft -i.e. those not making use of the aerodrome facility being charged an aerodrome use fee. The campaign will target individual pilots, flight training schools and other influential aviation organisations.
In response to the report above, the following comments were received from the reporter:
We have attempted numerous time to resolve these issues with [service provider] and the two aerodrome operators, before making the REPCON report. I am pleased to say we have been made aware that there have already been some long overdue improvements to the process at [location].