Under cover of media indifference, Australian airlines are trying to cut the ratio of flight attendants to passengers on domestic flights from one per 36 seats to 1:50.

There is more to this than efficient meal service. Cabin crew are there to get passengers out of a burning aircraft before they are killed by an otherwise survivable crash.

It is complex and difficult task. Think about it next time you are stuffed into a tiny seat some metres from the nearest exit. Add in thick smoke, screaming people, families trying to stick together or others paralysed with fear, all jamming an aisle that you usually take at least several minutes to traverse while boarding or disembarking.

Now think of the money the airlines can save by cutting back on the Australian standard ratio of 1:36, which is world’s best practice, to the 1:50 ratio found elsewhere. Now think again of that smoke-filled cabin.

This standard is being considered by a CASA working party which is reviewing an airline sponsored proposal to fall into line with the rest of the world.

The working party, which includes the Flight Attendants Association of Australia (FAAA) is due the provide CASA with a set of draft rule changes this month. A discussion period of some months would then follow before the proposed rule changes are approved.

There are of course other issues at play. All of the Australian carriers already use exemptions granted by CASA on a regularly renewable basis to crew the cabins of Boeing 737-800s and A320s with only four attendants rather than the five that would apply under the 1:36 ratio as they fit them with between 168-180 seats.

Qantas, Virgin Blue, Jetstar and Tiger use this variation of the rule.

But those exemptions crucially leave one cabin crew on station at each of the four major doors, two at either end of the fuselage, which have integrated emergency slide and raft assemblies.

The 1:50 rule saw the US Airways A320 that ditched into the Hudson River beside Manhattan in January crewed with only one attendant at the two rear doors, where he had to fight off passengers who were trying to open them even though the lower sill was below water.

Had either of those doors been fully popped the jet would have sunk more rapidly than it did, and well before the passengers had escaped to the wings from where most were transferred to rescue boats.

This is a story where the defence will be “safety isn’t compromised”. And that will be a lie. This is all about cost cutting, not life saving.

Peter Fray

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