This morning, when Qantas and Jetstar failed to show up as expected for a Senate inquiry public hearing into pilot training and safety standards, former Qantas executive GM and now Virgin Blue’s CEO  John Borghetti wrapped the group in the Australian flag and promised more local jobs and the reduction of existing off-shore activity where possible.

It was a classic ambush.  All that was missing was the Virgin Blue Children’s Choir springing to its feet in the back of the committee room to sing “We’ll always call Australia home”.

On February 25 the Senators were fiercely offended by a Borghetti no-show when a token Virgin Blue team sat as shame-faced and unresponsive before the inquiry.

But not this morning. Borghetti said he was reviewing the small amount of work done off shore in the Virgin Blue group’s operations (which includes a Pacific Blue division based in New Zealand) with a view to maximising Australian jobs.

He announced high-level negotiations with Skywest Airlines of WA to set up a cadet pilot program, which would, unlike the Jetstar NZ but-working-in-Australia scheme, be based in Australia, paid in Australian dollars, and pay Australian taxes and the superannuation levy.

Borghetti also pledged support for the legislation proposed by independent Senator Nick Xenophon, strengthening the ability of pilots and airline staff to report safety infringements and other related concerns to the authorities, which is also being considered under the inquiry’s terms of reference.

It has been opposed by Qantas and Jetstar and just about everyone else who has been asked the question.

Borghetti and his team of senior executives and flight standards, went out of their way to lay claim to setting higher safety and training standards than required for compliance with the regulatory minimums.

The group’s chief pilot, Stuart Aggs, said compliance was regarded as a consequence of meeting the much higher standards Virgin Blue insisted upon.

The Senate committee is considering whether or not a minimum of 1500 hours actual flying experience should be compulsory for the recruitment of a pilot into the right-hand or first-officer seat of a mainline jet airliner.

Aggs said he could not recall anyone with less than this amount of real hands-on flying experience getting a first officer position in the group, even though the minimum it had set was 1000 hours including 500 hours in multi-engined aircraft, well above the legal minimum of 150 hours that Jetstar saw as acceptable.

The group’s chief pilot said: “We have a green-on-green rule. We do not allow low hours new first officers by our definition to fly with recently promoted captains with low hours as a captain.

“Our risk management doesn’t allow that to happen.”

Borghetti and Aggs said that in general terms, the pilot training industry on its own did not produce graduates with sufficient skills to occupy the right hand seat of a Virgin Blue jet. It was considered essential to put such inexperienced pilots through specially tailored Virgin Blue training programs, or to extensively augment their “vanilla” training if they were external candidates.

All of which left the controversial testimony given by Qantas CEO Alan Joyce and Jetstar Group CEO Bruce Buchanan, on February 25, in relation to training and safety matters all the more in need of further explanation by both men by a group of senators very keen to hear from them again.

It is not known when Joyce and Buchanan will be available again. They were too busy to attend today.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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