Federal Cabinet will decide over the next few weeks whether to approve a controversial proposal to open up Australian domestic air routes to foreign competition as part of the Abbott government’s plan to develop Australia’s far north.
The proposal would let foreign carriers fly domestic passengers between domestic airports above the Tropic of Capricorn. That includes Cairns, Townsville, Darwin, Broome and Port Hedland. The fear among Australian airlines is that it would be the thin end of a wedge which would eventually lead to open slather on routes elsewhere in Australia. That would let foreign airlines pick off the most profitable domestic air routes, to the detriment of established Australian carriers.
The ALP has made its position clear, with shadow federal transport minister Anthony Albanese saying the scheme would threaten Australia’s airlines and undermine local wages in a form of “unilateral economic disarmament”.
The Australian and International Pilots Association (AIPA) has urged the Federal Government to reject the proposal. It warns that a massive change in domestic aviation policy is being contemplated without any assessment of the costs and benefits.
AIPA argues that the Australian aviation industry “is a vibrant sector with well established and safe airlines operating in a strong regulatory environment, subject to healthy levels of market competition and already providing cheap airfares”.
AIPA President Nathan Safe said no evidence existed that allowing foreign airlines to operate on domestic routes in Northern Australia would benefit the Australian airline industry, the tourist industry or provide more jobs for Australians, including pilots.
Safe said AIPA was concerned any such liberalisation on domestic routes in the nation’s north would inevitably spread to the more populated parts of Australia and cause chaos in the aviation industry.
“Aviation has gone through some tough times since 2001, and Australia is fortunate to have an industry that is relatively stable compared with other parts of the world,” he said.
“We see no compelling argument to grant cabotage beyond what the Australian National Aviation policy already allows.
“The Harper Review [which is considering the changes] has failed to take into account the potential impact on Australia’s current domestic carriers, especially the impact on jobs in the industry,” Safe said.
“Our view is that any change to aviation policies that impacts on job opportunities for Australian pilots is rushed and ill-considered policy and should be rejected – especially in the absence of consultation with affected stakeholders,” he added.
“Our aviation industry is among the best and safest in the world and that’s largely because of the high skill levels of Australian pilots.
“Asia’s aviation sector is undergoing massive growth in a regulatory environment that isn’t necessarily as robust as our own, and we would have grave concerns about the consequences of letting foreign airlines onto domestic routes.”
Unions, predictably, are incensed over the open skies suggestion – and have pulled no punches on the safety implications.
Transport Workers Union (TWU) National Secretary Tony Sheldon said public safety was at stake.
“We need to protect the Australian public, who will be well aware of the hundreds of people who died in airline crashes in the last year on foreign carriers. Australia has an excellent record in aviation safety; does the Government really want to see that compromised?”
Any move to let foreign carriers operate domestically represented a declaration of war by the Government on the Australian aviation industry, the TWU stated.
It said the move move would potentially replace tens of thousands of Australian jobs by exploited, underpaid and poorly trained overseas workers.
“Last year saw Australia’s two main carriers end a capacity war which had wreaked havoc on both airlines’ workforces,” Sheldon commented.
“At Qantas it resulted in 5000 job cuts which have been replaced by part-time/casual jobs. We do not need a new war on this front.”
The TWU says that 21% of Australia’s aviation workers are already earning below the poverty line and lowering conditions even further is simply not sustainable.
“Australian workers have full-time Australian bills to pay. They currently cannot live on the part-time wages they are forced to accept in aviation and they certainly would not be able to live on the wages the Government is considering importing into our country. This move is therefore morally reprehensible,” Sheldon said.
“We are currently discussing this issue with our cabin crew and other aviation members. We will be looking at the full range of options available to us to ensure jobs and income security are protected.”
Written by Peter Needham