Airline passengers who want absolute certainty that their pilots are as fresh as possible ‘at the wheel’ may have serious cause for a heightened fear of flying amid a push to force pilots to accept conditions that could compromise Australian air safety.

Intimidation, secret deals, and bitter feuds among former colleagues: they are parts of the alarming unhappiness that has come to cockpits all over Australia.

And there are claims that substantial numbers of Australian pilots have accepted — or been forced to accept — ‘fatigue management solutions’ that would be criminal if applied to the long-distance truckies on the nation’s highways.

Where will it all end? With more money, more acrimony, or an air disaster leading to a Royal Commission?

What the public is of late seeing solely as the serious inconvenience of cancelled flights — and not only on Virgin Blue — is in fact a fierce struggle for the joystick when it comes to flight-duty conditions between the Australian airlines and pilots who are themselves deeply divided over the underlying issues.

It has been described to Crikey as the one workplace reform that can literally come crashing back to earth. And our informants can’t be identified in an industry where they will never again fly in this country if they speak out about the determined efforts underway to destroy the long-standing Civil Aviation Order 48, which caps the time spent actually flying an airliner to 900 hours a year.

CAO 48, which the Civil Aviation Safety Authority is supposed to uphold, has been comprehensively subverted by a string of commercial-in-confidence deals over what are termed pilot-fatigue management programs written into airline operating manuals, which require CASA’s approval, including subsequent variations.

There are claims that the rostering detail accepted by or foisted on substantial numbers of Australian pilots would be criminal infringements of the laws relating to long-distance truck drivers. But no-one, including the regulator, the responsible minister, and his Opposition counterparts, has yet shared any of his or her concerns about this with the public who sits on the other side of the cockpit doors, in the delusion that world’s best-practice in piloting standards and work conditions are humming along in harmony with the professional pilots at the controls.

In fact, not even the least-tamed pilots’ association, the Australian Federation of Air Pilots, has yet taken a public stand on the duty-hours crisis that one way or another embroils members flying for Virgin Blue, some Qantas group carriers, including Jetstar and other scheduled operators, right down to the size of Transair, which like those who were aboard the ill-fated flight into the Lockhart River strip in 2005, will never fly again.

Why? Perhaps because it is weeks away from any likely conclusion to EBA negotiations with Virgin Blue, but also because Crikey has learned that some members are double-crossing each other for perceived career advantages.

What do ‘fatigue management solutions’ entail. They include quite proper checks by management that pilots are indeed fatigued. But they also involve processes of reporting ‘fatigue’ to operations managers in what some claim is such an intimidating environment that a career-oriented young first officer might recognise as being career-threatening.

One recently retired check captain who oversaw flight standards on a large scale, says: “You were wrong to recently report too many pilots were taking sickies. Too few pilots are declaring themselves fatigued in situations where they should emphatically not be permitted to control an airliner, especially if overtaken by those unexpected things, like mechanical failures, or severe weather, or an emergency landing, where the wrong decision is irretrievably wrong.”

Why? “Because of greed or opportunity or fear. There is a serious decline in the culture of operational safety right around the world. I’m especially disappointed to see that Australia is going down the path of expediency in keeping enough hands on the sticks, rather than daring to lead in renewing a professional pilot pool.”

This informant says he believes CASA has secretly, that is commercially-in-confidence, allowed the variation of some of the existing fatigue management programs to assist the airline through its current difficulties, which have been exacerbated by the tax-free recruiting drives of Emirates, Etihad, Qatar and other carriers for the skilled airline professionals they need to sustain massive expansion.

Crikey has asked specific questions of CASA and its embattled CEO, Bruce Byron, but no response was received by late this morning.

The most acute question of all is whether Byron is there to ‘assist carriers through their difficulties’ or come clean with the public about the pressures that are becoming apparent to anyone who has had their flight cancelled in recent times.