The union that represents many Qantas and Jetstar pilots says it will fight the Qantas Group all the way up to the High Court over its dismissal of a Jetstar first officer, Joe Eakins for writing an article critical of the Jetstar’s cost cutting culture in terms of safety implications.

The President of the Australian and International Pilots Association, Barry Jackson, said the sacking was ‘completely unacceptable and un-Australian.’

This is the article, which appeared in the National Times, the opinion, analysis and commentary section of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age early in October.

I can still recall the first time I looked skyward to watch a jumbo jet soar overhead. As a 10-year-old growing up in the late 1980s, I dreamed that one day I would be at the controls of one of those mighty machines as it roared through the skies.

After 10 years as a pilot, currently as a First Officer on Airbus A330’s, the thrill is still there.

But the next generation of youngsters with the same dream may never realise it, with the latest cost-cutting attempts by airline bean counters threatening the very existence of an Australian aviation sector.

Jetstar have led the way, recently announcing a plan to cut pilot labour costs by hiring crew for several new Australian-registered A330 aircraft, operated under Australian Air Operator’s Certificates, out of Singapore where they will employ air crew on wages well below their Australian-based colleagues.

While they are offering the jobs to Australian pilots first, albeit on contracts that cut basic remuneration by almost 50 per cent, the remaining positions will be filled out of Singapore and Vietnam.

This follows similar moves with their New Zealand-based JetConnect subsidiary, that pays pilots about 70 per cent of their Australian colleagues’ wages, and the “offshoring” of a large proportion of Jetstar’s Australian-based international flight attendants to Thailand and Singapore.

Many of these Australian employees have been replaced by workers flown in from “bases of convenience” in Singapore and Bangkok on employment conditions well below the applicable Australian award.

While the conditions of flight crew have come under the knife, Jetstar chief executive Bruce Buchanan has been promoted by creating an additional layer of management between himself and operational staff, and in doing so has been rewarded with a 43 per cent pay rise.

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce has also joined the cause, last week accusing pilots of being in “cloud-cuckoo land” for opposing the offshoring of jobs, saying: “The fact is that we are in a highly competitive market, we need to have an Asian carrier with Asian rates.” The irony of this statement is that the Qantas Group already has two Asian carriers with Asian rates, Jetstar Asia and Jetstar Pacific.

What Joyce is trying to do is to distract the public gaze from the real point of contention, which is having an Australian carrier operating on Australian routes, but having employees paid “Asian rates” through artificially manufactured overseas bases.

The Australian and International Pilot’s Association, which represents the majority of Jetstar pilots, is taking legal action arguing that pilots flying Australian aircraft on Australian routes should be paid the same wages as local crew, whether they are flying out of New Zealand or Singapore.

Pilots, through AIPA, have also expressed concern regarding the company’s desire to undermine the pilot seniority system as a mechanism for promotion, which is standard practice in almost all the world’s respected Airlines.

While the new Jetstar contracts that promote pilots according to “merit” may sound like a good idea, it is important to take a closer look. Airline pilots, like many other professionals, are paid as much to refuse to do certain things as they are to get the job done. Every day in the life of a professional airline pilot is spent evaluating risks and determining the safest course of action. Sometimes this safest course of action will be at odds with the short-term commercial imperatives of the company.

A pilot operating within a seniority system has no incentive to take risks or break the rules to appease management and increase their chances of promotion. Conversely a pilot operating under the “merit”-based promotion system, particularly in a company that views cost saving as its fundamental value, will be under implicit pressure to please management or risk their career advancement prospects.

These disputes have broad implications for all Australians. Firstly, our reputation for aviation excellence has been built on the dedication, training, hard work and experience of local pilots over many decades, a culture that will be obliterated if the offshoring push continues and the proven and effective seniority system is scrapped.

Secondly, Jetstar has demonstrated that, while WorkChoices may be “dead and buried”, the new Fair Work Act can be circumvented and draconian workplace conditions can be imposed through the use of foreign “bases of convenience”, allowing Australian operations to be staffed with people on Third World wages and working conditions.

Already young pilots who have successfully completed recruitment with Jetstar Australia have been contacted by the company and offered New Zealand or Singaporean contracts on unfavourable terms.

The Australian aviation sector is at a crossroads. Not only are the dreams of the youngsters who look skyward at risk, but the institutions that created our reputation for safety through well trained experienced pilots is under threat, which is bad news for all Australians.

Joseph Eakins is a Jetstar A330 First Officer and a member of the Australian and International Pilot’s Association.

At that time the article caused a fierce reaction in Jetstar, which began ‘show cause’ processes against Eakins as to why he should not be dismissed.

The article was even removed from the National Times at the association’s request, as it moved to protect Eakins’ career.

However he was dismissed on November 18 for among other things “making unauthorised public statements about the Company, and engaging in activity which could by association cause public embarrassment or harm to Jetstar’s business, interests and reputation.”

The Eakins affair has blown up less than a week before a Senate Inquiry into pilot training and safety standards is due to begin, instigated by independent South Australian senator, Nick Xenophon.

Jackson said ““Joe’s bravery in blowing the whistle on some of these practices has been rewarded by an unfair dismissal. The Association will be taking Joe’s case to Fair Work Australia claiming unfair dismissal and making an “adverse action” claim under untested Fair Work laws.

“The Association is calling on all federal parliamentarians to carefully consider the implications of this shocking case. We need urgent whistleblower legislation in this country to protect people like Joe.

“We will not be taking a backward step in defense of our member. Joe Eakins is a hero to the piloting fraternity for speaking out and should be venerated in the broader Australian community for the principled stand he has taken.

“Jetstar will not be getting away with this despicable behaviour.

“The Association calls on all trade unions, particularly the aviation unions, to back Joe over the stand he has taken. Working Australians have a right to speak out over legitimate safety and training concerns and union rep’s like Joe are supposed to have some level of protection when they do speak out.”