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Wednesday, 23 November 2011
Page: 13716

Mr SYMON (Deakin) (11:24): As a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications, I am pleased that this report has now been tabled and I definitely speak in support of its recommendations. I certainly agree with the contribution from the member for Ryan. This was a particularly interesting inquiry, and I found that the further we went into the inquiry the more I went searching for information, because it actually came across as something that was happening right now, a real-life situation. In particular, I will talk about recommendation Nos 6 and 7, which refer to the one to 36 ratio of cabin crew that Australia currently has. I have no doubt that when it comes to cabin crew ratios Australia leads the world.

I think it is also important to say that at the inquiry not one piece of evidence was presented that proved that a ratio of one cabin crew to 50 passenger seats was safer than Australia's current ratio of one cabin crew to 36 passengers. Although there were such claims in submissions from various airlines and CASA, no-one was able to provide this proof to the committee.

We then heard lots of stories about world's best practice and various other things. At the time I found a rather interesting article in the Courier Mail of 30 May by Robert MacDonald. The article is titled 'Practice may make perfect, but calling it world's best is meaningless'. In the article—and I will only quote a few sections—he said it is time to call an end to world's best practice. He went on to say:

The airlines argue the present ratio of one crew member for every 36 passengers should be increased to a ratio of 1:50 on the basis, in summary, of world's best practice.

He then said:

How can that be, at least if you are a passenger? How can reducing staff numbers possibly be an improvement in the current state of affairs?

He then said:

The Australian and International Airline Pilots Association takes some exception to these arguments: "What this term means is not explained. There is no documentation to suggest that transition to the new ratio actually enhances aviation safety and therefore 'world's best practice' cannot be in relation to safety outcomes."

As noted in the report, proposals to change the one to 36 cabin crew ratio have been dealt with by the parliament and its committees previously. On each occasion the change to the one to 50 ratio was not accepted. Of great concern to me was CASA's granting of exemptions to the one to 36 cabin crew ratio, despite the previously expressed views of parliament over many years. These exemptions continue today. There are at least 12 exemptions currently operating to this ratio; for airlines such as Qantas, Jetstar, Virgin, Sunstate, Cobham, Air North, Alliance, Tiger, Strategic and Skywest. This practice of granting exemptions is widespread. The more I read and heard about this issue, the greater my concerns became that the proposed change in ratios, and the existing exemptions, may not be as safe as what should be there in the current one to 36 ratio.

The committee had three public hearings and we had some very knowledgeable witnesses at each of the three public hearings. As the member for Ryan said, one of our regrets was that we ran out of time. We could have spent a lot more time talking to some of these witnesses about their knowledge of the situation. They brought some great experience along to the committee. I would like to refer to some of those committee hearings. The first one was in Sydney on 19 May this year. We received a submission from Ms Beverley Maunsell and on reading it we saw that it was in a private capacity but when we delved a bit further we found she had been trained by Qantas as an air safety investigator. She believed at the time of her departure from Qantas that she was the only cabin safety specialist employed by an airline in the world. She went on to say that she presumed she was still probably the only one to hold that position.

To have someone like that present to the committee gave us a great opportunity to really flesh out some of the questions that had been asked of both CASA and the airlines. As the member for Ryan said, the changing mix of passengers on airlines to me presented a great concern. Many of us in this place use airlines very frequently and we do see a lot of what happens around us. Over the many years I have been flying I have seen an increase in the number of children, an increase in the number of passengers with disabilities and even an increase in the number of passengers who need wheelchairs to get on and off planes. This seems to be happening more and more. Around holiday time the number of children on planes is huge. That of course comes down in many cases to cheaper fares. These days it can be cheaper to fly the family interstate than in previous times, when people might have driven. I asked Ms Maunsell at the 19 May public hearing about her observations over the years of the change in the number or percentage of passengers with a disability and the number of unaccompanied children on planes. She replied:

Not personally. I know that there are a lot more people with disabilities travelling. There are a lot more people with disabilities in the general day-to-day meeting with people now. The flight attendants association would most probably be best to tell you this.

She then said, 'I certainly would not want to be on one of the flights up to Coolangatta in the school holidays!' which did reinforce my own particular view of that.

There was also another hearing on 25 May, in Canberra, and we had the Flight Attendants Association come along to that. We took evidence from Ms Jo-Ann Davidson of the association, who told us:

The current exemption for the Jetstar airbus A321 aircraft within the Qantas group has removed the cabin crew member responsible for the forward right primary floor level exit. Given the exemption, there is only one cabin crew member responsible for the two forward emergency exit doors.

That then leads back into the problem that the member for Ryan described. How does someone who has not been trained and so does not understand how to operate a piece of equipment even in relaxed circumstances then go on to perform that action, and succeed in doing it first time, in an emergency? I cannot see from any background of training how that can be achieved. I asked later on in that hearing:

… how hard is it to open an aircraft door and what sort of training is required for someone who has no knowledge to be able to do that?

Ms Carol Locket replied:

Cabin crew are trained extensively to open aircraft doors. They are certified by CASA through emergency procedures, either every six months or every 12 months. Technique is quite important in that there are certain types of doors where it would not matter how hard you pushed them; if you have not put the handle to the correct position in the first place, they will not open.

I then asked:

Therefore, a passenger with absolutely no training, if called upon in any situation to be able to do that—what chance do you think they would have of being successful in that operation?

Ms Locket replied:

I would say that they would have a very reduced chance of opening that successfully.

I think that is a real concern for anyone who travels on an airline in Australia or with those sorts of rules anywhere in the world. We take safety, especially in Australian airlines, as a right, and we should. There is certainly a very good record in this country. And I do not see any case for undermining our safety record just on the basis of airline manufacturers' calculations on how their planes could be used. Australia does have the worldwide reputation of having a safe airline industry.

There are many, many other things that came up through the course of the inquiry. Our third hearing was in Canberra on 1 June. Many of the same people came back to the inquiry, because it was a follow-up public hearing. At that hearing I asked questions about the capacity of passengers to understand what was required of them in case of an emergency evacuation if they had to operate the door themselves. I asked this question of John McCormick, the Director of Aviation Safety at CASA. I asked particularly how it could be done, because I still did not get a proper understanding of how someone who had had a card waved in their face could then perform that action. It was not a straight answer, I must say. We just could not really get to the admission that a trained person would do the job better than an untrained person. But it was clear to me—and other committee members will speak for themselves—that in an emergency situation I would much rather be in the hands of a trained professional than a conscripted volunteer, who might have absolutely no idea of what they had been called upon to do. We also discussed airline evacuation tests, whether they had actually been done and what the results were. We came across some rather disturbing evidence there too, because these were not full evacuations; they were only partial and they were pre-notified. People were put on and told what was going to happen. Furthermore, in relation to the passengers, Mr McCormick said at the 1 June hearing:

They are all able-bodied, I will say that, but there has to be a certain percentage above a certain age, there has to be some that are above 60 years of age, they have to have two dolls to represent infants—they are not counted under two years of age in the seat count.

Mr SYMON: Dolls are rather compliant, aren't they? Infants are not.

Mr McCormick: Quite correct.

That goes back to the contribution of the member for Ryan, who said that the mix of passengers on planes is not reflected in a theoretical piece of paper that was written up in the early seventies—or before that, in many cases, as the committee heard. The reality of what is there now needs to be reflected. Everyone knows that there are many, many people on planes who simply are not able—or in some cases not willing—to perform those functions. Again, those functions need to go back to a trained professional.

That was taken up by many members of the committee and asked several times of several people who came to present evidence to us. I left each and every one of those public hearings unsatisfied that a change to the ratio of cabin crew to passengers in Australia would be for the better for the Australian public. The committee has now considered and tabled the report, and nothing since those public hearings has caused me to change my mind on that. I am certain that when it comes to world's best practice, however it is described, Australia is at that level. It is actually up to the rest of the world to catch up to us. I thank the House.