In a parliament where the safety standards of Australia’s major airlines has been treated as a topic totally above serious questioning or examination since the Ansett-ANA and TAA disasters of the 60s, yesterday’s events in the Senate broke the taboo barriers.

The major parties, and the Australian Greens, carried a motion by independent SA senator, Nick Xenophon that refers current aviation training and flight standards and licence requirements for commercial pilots to the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee for an inquiry. The inquiry is expected to recommend significant safety reforms to airline regulations when it reports by mid November.

Xenophon also introduced a private member bill that seeks to prevent airlines intimidating pilots and others from promptly notifying the air safety regulator and investigator of serious incidents, such as the triggering of ground proximity warning devices or the malfunction of controls or their computer systems.

The context of these moves is wider spread concern abroad, and in the US in particular, over inadequate training and replacement programs for retiring experienced pilots in a strongly growing airline industry, and degraded safety cultures. Much of this safety drop comes from metric centric managements that see safety standards as a measurable cost rather than a nebulous or immeasurable necessity.

The US recently mandated 1500 flight hours as a minimum requirement for a commercial first officer on a mainline carrier rather than the much lower levels of experience now legal in Australia and elsewhere.

Even Airbus and Boeing have started referring to the risks of pilot inexperience in modern jets in some of their technical briefings.

Xenophon, with strong professional pilot support, is arguing that Australia needs to consider introducing the higher US flight time standards it now requires for mainline airline entry.

This puts him and pilots at odds with airline managements that see competitive tendering for pilot training requirements– and a tick the boxes approach to a set of minimum standards –as part of the answer to a skills shortage.

The inquiry is also framed to allow examination of the Jetstar strategy of hiring Asian pilots working for its Vietnam and Singapore subsidiaries to work at minimum legal rates in Australia, and relocate some of its Australian pilots for less money to a base set up at Changi Airport to operate Australian services with Singapore registered jets.

If the Senate inquiry does lead to a requirement that Australia’s major airlines must lift their standards for first officer appointments to the US minimum, the immediate effect will be to make them retain experienced pilots with pay and condition deals that are competitive with those offered by the no tax carriers of the Middle East, primarily Emirates, Etihad and Qatar, or the low tax deals possible with Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific.

Parallel with the Senate inquiry, the bill to protect pilots and others in relation to the responsibility of Australian airlines to notify the authorities of what are already defined as ‘reportable’ incidents in the existing aviation regulations means trouble ahead for a the cosy relationships between the country’s larger airlines and the safety regulator CASA and the safety investigator, the ATSB.

In recent years the ATSB and CASA have variously refused to act against REX for continuing a passenger flights from Wagga Wagga to Sydney on one engine, or against Jetstar for failing to report a ground proximity warning from a flight that flew a dangerously bad missed approach to Melbourne airport in fog, or against Tiger for not reporting a malfunctioning aileron.

In the Tiger case, management even publicly flaunted its view that the Australian law didn’t apply to it. The law does apply to Tiger, and for the Singapore Airlines controlled carrier to tell the ATSB that it will decide which parts it will obey and get away with it is a reminder of how subservient to the airlines the administration of aviation standards in this country has become.