A Senate inquiry into airline flight crew training and standards in Australia has turned into a last-ditch stand by “the old Qantas” culture of lifetime, highly experienced company pilots against “the new” Jetstar culture of low experience, short-term piloting “solutions”.

The Rural Affairs and Transport Committee has pushed back acceptance of submissions from yesterday’s deadline to allow the Qantas Group to finalise a major and detailed rebuttal of the submission lodged by the Australian and International Pilots Association (AIPA), which is the main union for Qantas and Jetstar pilots.

The AIPA document, published  last night by Crikey blog Plane Talking, goes to the heart of its long-standing claims that Qantas has disconnected itself from the high piloting standards of the past in the pursuit of younger inexperienced, generation Y pilots, who will bend to a cost-cutting culture that has lower respect for rules or standards, and thus imperils the level of safety that travellers expect from Australian carriers.

It is obvious that Qantas will strongly contest AIPA’s claims, and there is understood to be a large team working on its submission.

The opposed management and union submissions may well inflame the generational cultural gap that is evident in the flying game between the expectations and commitments of younger and older pilots.

However, the Qantas case will be tested by the recent US decision to outlaw the hiring of low flight-time pilots with the same levels of inexperience as that which is tolerated by current Australian regulations and forms a key part of the Jetstar and Tiger low-cost business model.

If pilot inexperience is now illegal in new hirings in US airlines and legal in Australian carriers, who is right and who is wrong?

The AIPA case is full of unpleasant disclosures for air travellers, including its pointing out that current junior pilot hirings in Australia can count time flying gliders as part of their experience, and that new style managements are instructing pilots to keep their hands off manual flying, and rely on modern, automated flight systems for all but a matter of minutes in flights lasting hours.

The not-so-subtle sub text of the AIPA case is that modern airline managements despise the legacy of highly experienced pilots on high pay, and have unduly outsourced the tick-the-box simulator dominated training courses for young low-pay recruits to third-party providers who are allegedly compromised by their commercial relationships with the carriers.

It also argues that as Australian regulations do not define the experience levels required for promotion to captain, a dangerous situation is arising where low-time captains and even lower flight time first officers are being put together in the cockpit of jet airliners lacking the hands on experience to deal with unexpected situations brought about by systems failures or severe weather conditions or other abnormal circumstances.

The pilot submission concludes with its arguments in support of a private members bill introduced by Senator Xenophon, who instigated the Senate inquiry, which would impose criminal sanctions on airlines or staff that evade their responsibilities to report safety incidents or use cultural pressure to silence pilots concerned about safety related issues.

This goes to the heart of latter-day high-cost and low-cost carrier cultures that encourage pilots to work around the rules rather than to the rules, something that has in recent years lead to such bizarre incidents as a British Airways 747 flying right across the US and North Atlantic on only three engines, or a REX turbo prop flying most of the way from Wagga Wagga to Sydney on only one engine, a gamble that the ATSB not only ignored, but offered excuses for on behalf of the airline.

Peter Fray

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