In lay language, the Senate inquiry into pilot training and airline safety has made a set of recommendations that would put Australia on the same page as American lawmakers in resisting the dangerous things desperate airlines have been doing to cut corners.

It has shot down the preference of Jetstar, for example, for “geek pilots” (my term for young, inexperienced and indebted recruits) who under current rules can be hired as Airbus A320 first officers with as little as 250 hours of actual hands-on or “real” flying.

That’s not enough hours to be safe flying a Cessna 172 in all conditions in the outback, never mind a 180-seat jet during a less-than-textbook perfect flight dealing with a systems problem, an incapacitated captain or a rough-weather approach to an Australian city.

It’s tolerance by CASA, and the airlines, and successive ministers, has eroded the safety standards most Australians would believe to be world leading.

The inquiry, instigated by independent senator Nick Xenophon, and chaired by Bill Heffernan,  has recommended a minimum of 1500 hours “real” flight experience, as well as qualification to the highest standard of airline pilot licence, as the hiring prerequisite.

The members resisted a chorus of entrenched interests, not just in the airlines, CASA, the flying schools and Boeing, but even in the pilot unions, all of which argued against the 1500 hours rule, and came down on the side of excellence rather than the current legal minimums preferred by some carriers.

They have also recommended that the Australian authorities and airlines study the findings of the current inquiry into the Air France flight AF447 Airbus A330 disaster, in which pilot inexperience and poor training for dealing with emergencies in a highly automated cockpit has been implicated in a failure to recover from a high-altitude stall and subsequent crash into the mid-Atlantic in June 2009, killing all 228 on board.

From the submissions and lengthy hearings conducted by the committee, it is apparent that there is a serious contest going on in many airlines, not just in Australia, between the accountancy-based desire for pilots to use autopilots as much as possible, and the reality that when automated systems fail or other emergencies strike, pilot experience and training are crucial to avoiding an Air France-type of disaster.

Qantas would have lost an Airbus A330-300 near Learmonth in Western Australia in 2008, and an Airbus A380 near Singapore last November, had not experienced pilots effectively disregarded or selectively engaged their computerised flight control systems to deal with sudden emergencies,  as they did in two recent 747 emergencies at Bangkok and in a forced landing in Manila.

Jetstar CEO Bruce Buchanan has previously publicly insisted that inexperienced pilots were preferable to experienced recruits. He has been comprehensively rebuffed for such dangerous fantasies by the Senate inquiry. The disdain some low-cost and legacy airline managements often have for pilot training standards pose a serious threat to flight safety worldwide.

The Jetstar situation has to been carefully articulated by the Senate inquiry and demands rectification.

The Senate committee has through its recommendations spoken out against cheapness and convenience in piloting, which is too often just seen as a labour supply issue by carrier managements.

The next test is whether or not the Minister for Transport, Anthony Albanese, turns these recommendations into urgently needed reforms.

Peter Fray

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