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Wednesday, 23 November 2011
Page: 13725

Mr FLETCHER (Bradfield) (12:03): I disagree with the views that have been expressed by the member for Chifley and with the report of the committee. In my view, the inquiry has offered no satisfactory basis for Australia persisting with a one-to 36-cabin crew ratio when a one-to-50 ratio is recommended by major aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus, and is the regulatory requirement in the United States, Europe and other jurisdictions.

The member for Chifley spoke about reaching a decision based on an assessment of the evidence and that is a good principle. I think all of us on the committee have a very strong incentive to be satisfied as to matters of aviation safety and security. In this business, we spend as much time in aircraft as people in just about any other occupation. Therefore, we all have a very strong interest in getting the best possible aviation safety and security outcomes. That was certainly very much at the top of my mind as I considered the evidence before the committee. In my assessment, the right way to frame the question which faced this inquiry was to ask whether there is any good reason for the cabin crew ratio used in Australia to diverge from the one-to-50 ratio, which is used in other developed nations and recommended by the aircraft manufacturers. In thinking about this question it is also relevant that the Commonwealth specialist regulator in this area—the Civil Aviation Safety Authority—proposes a one to 50 ratio. It is relevant that single-aisle aircraft in the relevant size range, such as the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737, are designed on the basis of a one to 50 ratio. And it is relevant that in the US and Europe—and, in fact, in all International Civil Aviation Organisation jurisdictions except Australia and Canada—one to 50 is the ratio used.

Let me be absolutely clear: if there is persuasive evidence that countries which use the one to 50 ratio have inferior aviation safety or security outcomes to those in Australia or if there is any tangible evidence that Australia's use, to date, of the one to 36 ratio has delivered tangible and practical benefits for safety or security, then we should have no hesitation in continuing to apply the one to 36 ratio. In my view, however, if there is no such evidence, we should adopt the international practice of the one to 50 ratio.

As I weighed up the evidence it was clear to me that the committee received no persuasive evidence that using the one to 50 ratio produces inferior safety or security outcomes. At the outset let us recognise that Australia has very high aviation safety standards. And that reflects many different factors, including maintenance practices, pilot training and quality, aircraft age and quality, air traffic control systems and weather. The number of cabin crew is one factor in a complex mix. It will be relevant in some situations, particularly where there is an accident which requires a rapid evacuation.

The committee asked the regulator—the Civil Aviation Safety Authority—whether there is evidence, to its knowledge, of systematic differences between aviation safety in Australia and other countries due to the different cabin crew ratios. In its submission and the evidence to the inquiry the authority noted that it had not been able to find any evidence and it had no knowledge of any accident or incident investigation in a country that uses the one to 50 ratio that has recommended an increase in the cabin crew ratio. CASA noted that it is not aware of any studies into cabin safety that have recommended an increase in the cabin crew ratio. It noted the absence, to its knowledge, of any evidence supporting a link between the Australian requirement for one cabin attendant to 36 passengers and Australia's aviation safety record. And it noted the absence, to its knowledge, of any situation where it has been demonstrated that the effective management of an event was enhanced as a consequence of the cabin crew ratio on that flight being one to 36.

I take from that—consistent with the principle rightly advanced by the member for Chifley that we ought to adopt an evidence based approach—that an evidence based approach does not provide support for Australia diverging from the ratio recommended by manufacturers and the ratio used in most comparable jurisdictions of one to 50. Of course, as has been noted, since 2006 CASA has given exemptions to a number of operators, allowing them to operate using the one to 50 ratio—so this is not merely a hypothetical matter; we actually have evidence of the practice in Australia—and we received no persuasive evidence, based upon that practice having been in place for the last five years, of any materially adverse safety consequences. One of the other issues that were thrown into the terms of reference for this review was aviation security. In answer to the question of whether it was correct that the aviation security considerations do not assist us and do not point in either direction—that is to say, do not point in favour of either one to 36 or one to 50—the advice from the senior officer of the Office of Transport Security who appeared before the committee was as follows: 'On the evidence that is available, that would be a fair assessment.' In my view, therefore—based upon the evidence that I had the opportunity to hear and to read as a member of the committee—it is clear that there is no persuasive basis for concluding that the use of a one to 50 ratio delivers any inferior safety outcome as compared to a one to 36 ratio.

There were a range of other arguments put to the committee and for completeness they ought to be addressed here. The first argument put as to why we ought to maintain the one to 36 ratio was because that is the ratio that Australia has historically had. I do not think that that is a very good argument. I do not think that it is a very good argument to say, 'We've always had one to 36 so we should maintain one to 36.' In my perception, that was the subtext of some of what was argued. But it is a poor basis for reaching a conclusion on this important question of public safety and security.

We then heard a range of arguments from the Transport Workers Union and the Flight Attendants Association of Australia. I am mystified as to why the Transport Workers Union was even called to appear before this committee. When the Secretary of the Transport Workers Union, Mr Tony Sheldon, appeared before the committee, I sought some guidance from him as to the particular expertise or competence that the Transport Workers Union might have on matters of aviation safety and security. I asked what role the members of the Transport Workers Union perform on an aircraft and Mr Sheldon, under questioning, conceded that there are no TWU members who have any in-flight role. It is therefore quite unclear to me why the committee heard from the Transport Workers Union.

Any citizen and any group or association is welcome to put submissions to parliamentary committees—of course they are, and that is to be encouraged. But the question is whether the views of the Transport Workers Union are infused with any particular expertise. My conclusion on this matter is that they are not and I can only speculate as to the arcane arrangements and relationships between the Australian Labor Party and the Transport Workers Union that led to us hearing such extensive evidence from the Transport Workers Union.

We also heard from the Flight Attendants Association of Australia. I acknowledge that the Flight Attendants Association presented arguments based on safety and security considerations. As I noted in my minority report, I found those arguments less persuasive than the evidence provided on the same points by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority and the Office of Transport Security.

There is one other issue that I would like to address before I conclude my remarks on this important topic, and that is the question of whether it is a bad thing that the airlines, in seeking this change, were motivated by the fact that it would deliver cost savings if the regulations were changed so that they were required to comply with a cabin crew ratio of one to 50 rather than the previous requirement of a ratio of one to 36. The majority report, at paragraph 1.71, speaks of the 'challenges in assessing operators' motivations in seeking exemptions to the one to 36 ratio'. It notes that the operators agreed that their motivation had been primarily for cost reasons. This is presented in the majority report as if it is in some way prima facie evidence of guilt. The paragraph seems to suggest that it is in some way a matter for concern that operators have been motivated by cost savings. Let me make it clear that I disagree. Safety must be the primary objective. Operators must not do anything that compromises safety. Safety is an absolute good in the conducting of an airline business. However, if cost savings can be obtained without compromising safety then I see no objection at all to operators pursuing cost savings. This is a question to be assessed on the evidence. Does the adoption of a one to 50 ratio rather than a one to 36 ratio cause detriment to safety and security? In the absence of evidence that it does then I for one see nothing inherently wrong with the pursuit of cost savings.

Let me make the point that if cost savings are obtained from this measure or indeed from anything else—and again emphasising that the absolute objective must be safety and that savings should be only sought and obtained if safety is not compromised—then among the benefits that might follow are lower airfares, making it affordable for more Australians to fly. It is possible that cost savings might improve the break-even economics of particular routes to particular destinations, particularly in rural and remote areas. It therefore might allow services that would not otherwise be possible. The other possibility is that the cost savings obtained by changing the cabin crew ratio might be used to fund other initiatives that have a greater safety and security benefit than is gained from diverging from the international standard ratio of one to 50 by continuing to use the once-off and stand-alone Australian ratio of one to 36.

This is an important question of public safety and security. It is a question that should be assessed based upon the evidence. I am pleased to say that all sides are in agreement on that proposition. Where we are in disagreement is on the conclusions to be drawn from the evidence. As I heard the evidence and as I read the submissions and in the questions that I asked of witnesses, the test that I sought to apply was whether there is any persuasive evidence that countries that use the internationally standard of one to 50 have inferior aviation safety or security outcomes compared to those in Australia or, conversely, evidence that Australia's use to date of the one to 36 ratio has delivered tangible, practical benefits for safety and security. I found no such evidence. On that basis, I was very comfortable in concluding—as somebody who spends quite a lot of time on aircraft—that Australia should move to adopting the international standard of a one to 50 ratio.

Debate adjourned.