A scathing attack on the management cultures of Australia’s airlines has been made in a pilot association statement to key Senators in advance of a Senate inquiry into pilot training and standards.

Headed Are we handing the keys of the Ferrari to a bunch of P-platers, the paper by the Australian and International Pilots Association says the operational safety of the country’s major airlines is falling.

The president of the association, Captain Barry Jackson, this morning said that there was a “total disconnection between new managements at airlines and the high safety cultures of the past that Australians are lead to believe in today”.

The AIPA paper says pilot conditions and training arrangements are being made “the playthings of young MBAs trying to make their mark in the business world”.

The Senate inquiry, instigated by the South Australian independent senator Nick Xenophon, will consider tough new standards for pilot training and experience levels in Australia following the US reaction to the Colgan crash at Buffalo in February 2009, which killed 50 people after two badly trained and fatigued pilots lost control of a Q400 turboprop.

The US Federal Aviation Administration subsequently lifted the minimum experience level for a first officer flying for a major American carrier to 1500 hours, compared to as little as 250 hours in Australia.

In the paper, AIPA says :

“We must make a stand to protect the safety of the public and ourselves …There is growing evidence that we have stagnated at safety levels achieved in 2003 and may even be going slowly backwards.

“Very low air fares have increased the demographic pool of potential air travellers and created a significant demand for increased capacity that appears set to continue.

“However, the expectation of the public is generally that the cheap fares come without any reduction in safety.”

AIPA says the current emphasis on streamlined and lower flight time progression to a pilot job with a major airline is fraught with compromises, exacerbated by shifting the costs to the would-be pilots through courses run by third-0party training solutions providers who are compromised by the need to churn out “qualified” pilots to the carriers who award them contracts.

The document says there has been a cultural change in pilot candidates as well, to a “Generation Y” profile that wants to bypass menial learning or experience gathering tasks and get behind the controls of a jet airliner as soon as possible.

It draws an alarming association between the ambitions of a new generation of pilots and the lack of connection to flight standards safety cultures in a new generation of managers.

“AIPA believes that there are flight safety risks that arise either directly through reductions in flight standards or indirectly as responses to changes in corporate culture and the social welfare of pilots.”

The paper accuses the airlines (in general) of treating pilots as a commodity “to be cost managed not nurtured”.

The pilot association recommends radical changes in CASA’s responsibilities for oversight of flight training and pilot standards including the occupational stress factors involved in pilot-paid training endorsements, long commutes to work, and  fatigue and roster issues.

It also backs calls already made by Senator Nick Xenophon to make it an offence for an airline to interfere with either a report about a safety event, or with the employee who reports a safety matter to CASA or to the ATSB.

A detailed timetable for the Senate inquiry has not yet been announced, however it is expected to report by the middle of November.

Peter Fray

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