Merredin airport in Western Australia is effectively under the control of a Chinese government enterprise, prompting outrage in aviation circles, as safety concerns shut down its pilot training school.
The airport’s runways, control tower, hangars and all of its assets are 50 per cent owned, and may soon be fully owned, by China’s biggest airline, state-owned China Southern Airlines.
In 1993, the secretive company quietly paid $1 to the WA government to lease the airport for 100 years to use as a base to train thousands of Chinese pilots for employment in the world’s fastest- growing aviation market.
In recent years it has owned the flight school with Canadian company CAE. So far, more than 2000 pilots have graduated from the facility, making it China Southern Airlines’ biggest training base in the world.
For an Australian town’s sole airstrip to be effectively controlled by the Chinese government is unusual.
Anyone who wishes to land at the aerodrome, 260km east of Perth, must seek approval from the flying school. Locals say permission has never been denied, but aviation veteran and businessman Dick Smith believes the airport should not be owned by a foreign company or government.
“It is outrageous that an Aussie pilot can’t go to a country airport without getting approval from the Chinese to land there,” he said.
“I’ve never heard of this happening anywhere.” In recent months, however, the Chinese flying school has suspended its operations in WA after the Civil Aviation Safety Authority raised safety concerns.
Aviation industry sources say the company has continued to pay millions of dollars in wages — without any students — since March this year.
One source said he believed a dispute between Guangzhou-based China Southern Airlines and CAE could lead to China Southern taking full ownership of the flying school within months.
A spokesman for China Southern West Australian Flying College declined to comment.
Merredin shire president Ken Hooper said nobody in town had been able to find out when the flying school would reopen.
“It’s quite important for our economy here but we just can’t get any information,” he said.
A CASA spokesman said the regulator would not publicly discuss details of its dealings with aviation organisations unless serious action was taken, such as suspending or cancelling a certificate.
“CASA and China Southern have been working to address identified safety and regulatory issues over a period of time,” the spokesman said. “CASA is hopeful that China Southern can meet all requirements as soon as possible.”
There is broader concern in the aviation industry about growing foreign ownership and control of pilot training schools in Australia.
With a looming shortage of commercial pilots predicted, there are fears Australia will have to import pilots while foreign-controlled pilot schools in this country send their graduates to China and elsewhere in Asia. At the same time, flight schools claim they are being crippled by skyrocketing costs and over-regulation.