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Wednesday, 23 November 2011
Page: 13719


Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (11:37): The October 2011 report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications on cabin crew ratios on Australian aircraft could not have been more aptly titled: Finding the right balance. The committee had been asked to consider a question of public policy, raising issues of public safety, security and cost. Within the committee's terms of reference, the report has certainly found the right balance. That question is whether the legal minimum requirement for the number of cabin crew in certain passenger aircraft should be a ratio of one to 50 or one to 36. Australia currently has the ratio of one crew member to 36 passengers. This requirement has remained unchanged since 1960. Whilst it is unclear exactly why this ratio was adopted, Qantas believes the one to 36 requirement was introduced to ensure that the Fokker F27 aircraft had two cabin crew members. The one to 36 requirement is unique to Australia and is the most rigid in the world.

In February 2010, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, CASA, issued a notice of proposed rule-making on cabin crew ratios, which proposed an amendment to a civil aviation order to permit aircraft operators to assign cabin crew according to a ratio of one crew member to a maximum of 50 passenger seats for aircraft fitted with between 36 and 216 seats. For international flights operating via Asia or the Pacific, the one to 36 requirement applies for the entire journey, not just the segment operating out of Australia. For co-share flights, the cabin crew requirements are those of the major airline's home country.

It should be noted that Australia does accept that the one to 50 requirement meets appropriate safety standards. Planes manufactured in the United States of America must meet Federal Aviation Administration regulations to be certified. This requires that a full evacuation of the aircraft can be undertaken in 90 seconds using the one to 50 cabin crew ratio. This process acknowledges that a seat ratio of one to 50 offers acceptable safety standards by approving the aircraft to operate in Australia. However, when operating in Australia the plane requires a passenger ratio of one to 36. In practice, this means that a cabin crew of five is required rather than four. By changing to the international standard ratio, costs will be lowered in what is only a small bit of good news for regional Australian airlines, which in July 2012 will be facing three major issues which will only cost them more. The impact of the carbon tax on the aviation industry is of serious concern. The aviation excise for domestic fuel use will be increased as part of the Labor government's carbon tax regime. In the first year alone, 6c a litre will be added to the cost of aviation kerosene, and just over 5c a litre will be added to the cost of avgas—and it just goes up and up from there.

The aviation industry has already made significant gains in becoming more efficient and reducing fuel usage. That is to be expected, as it is in the industry's commercial interest to decrease costs while at the same time maintaining safety. That is what the Finding the right balance report is all about, and it is a key factor of it. For an industry that cannot readily reduce fuel use any further in the absence of new technologies and is already struggling to cope with higher costs and very minimal margins, the introduction of a carbon tax is a new and serious impediment that has the potential to wipe out some operators.

The carbon tax is not Labor's only attack on the regional airline sector. The en route navigation charges rebate scheme for regional airlines is a $6 million per year program. It will be axed from 1 July next year, the same date the carbon tax comes into effect. It is yet another cost that will make even more regional air service operations more marginal. It is frustrating to hear some policy makers say that a change in government policy will add only a few dollars to the cost of a ticket from one airport to another. The route viability calculations are more complicated than that. If it were as simple as adding a few dollars to a ticket, companies would have already done that to increase profits for their shareholders and expand their business.

The coalition is committed to working with the aviation industry to ensure that the policy settings are right to guarantee the ongoing viability of the industry. Further, changes to regional aviation security have the potential to have a major cost impact on smaller carriers as regional airports try to pass on the cost of essential capital upgrades. These changes have been brought forward and will also come into effect from 1 July 2012. I note that the government has provided funding of up to $650,000 for each airport that is required to introduce screening. However, I understand that preliminary figures indicate that this will be woefully inadequate to cover the upgrade costs in airports. In some cases, the capital cost of the required upgrade will be several million dollars—not to mention ongoing operating costs of about $1 million per year. Some small airports with regular public transport services will have to add hundreds of dollars to the cost of air tickets if they hope to achieve cost recovery.

This certainly is of great concern to me and the people in my electorate, as one of the finest airlines in regional Australia—Regional Express—is homed in Wagga Wagga. It is the main operator for flying for most of my region. Rex has its roots firmly in the bush and in country Australia. Its tagline boldly affirms, 'Our heart is in the country.' Rex believes that the bush needs and deserves a quality air service that provides good connectivity with capital cities at affordable prices—and certainly the company does that. However, this Labor-Greens alliance is constantly throwing out challenges that affect Rex's margins, which affects the way Rex does its business. But, like all regional people and organisations, Rex will not be discouraged. Regional people are very resilient people, as I am sure the member for Gippsland would agree.

When it comes to aviation, nothing is more important than safety. Certainly this report indicates that safety is paramount. Australia has very high aviation standards. I have to say that the government recently funded a very good instrument landing system at Wagga Wagga Airport, and I commend that initiative. An instrument landing system is essentially a ground based approach system that provides precision guidance to an aircraft approaching and landing on a runway. It uses a combination of radio signals to enable a safe landing during meteorological conditions such as low cloud or reduced visibility due to fog or rain. The Wagga Wagga ILS is a key component in the success of aviation education and training within the region. However, the Wagga Wagga ILS also provides significant safety and operational benefits for the airport, coupled with significant economic benefits and job creation for the entire region. Perhaps even more importantly, however, the Wagga Wagga ILS provides an opportunity for the commercial pilots of the future to be trained at an airport, a regional airport, which boasts the latest technology of category 1 ILS equipment, without the need to fly further afield to gain access to an ILS.

Building on these strengths, aviation related education and training in Wagga Wagga has grown in response to industry needs. The emergence of a strategic partnership-based skills network between Wagga Wagga City Council, Regional Development Australia, federal government agencies, tertiary education institutions, industry skills councils and the private sector will continue promoting and growing Wagga Wagga's advantages in aviation education and training—which is known by some there as 'the Wagga Wagga initiative'.

The installation of the Wagga Wagga ILS was completed on 16 December 2010. Construction included the installation of a localiser antennae array, near-field monitor and equipment building at the 05 end of runway 05/23 and a glide path antennae, earth mat and equipment building at the 23 runway end. Power and communications cabling was installed from the air traffic control tower for both the localiser and glide path installations, which required several under bores including both runways, the parallel taxiway and a road. There was also a need to construct a permanent diversion of the airport perimeter road and installation of drainage culverts.

The opening was a grand occasion for Wagga Wagga. I welcomed the input of the Department of Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government into that whole process. The minister, Simon Crean, sent his representative, Gordon McCormick, there. He was certainly very much welcomed and the minister's input was noted by me on that occasion.

The Rex pilot academy is another wonderful institution that Wagga Wagga has, and is very lucky to have. It was officially completed in May 2010, although training had started in July 2009. Regional Express is Australia's largest independent regional airline, operating a fleet of more than 40 Saab 340 aircraft on some 1,300 weekly flights to 35 destinations throughout New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania. Wagga Wagga was carefully selected as the site for the Australian Airline Pilot Academy as it possesses ideal training conditions not found anywhere else in Australia. The Wagga Wagga flying training area is one of the largest in Australia and encompasses an area of approximately 540 square nautical miles with an aerobatic area of approximately 90 square nautical miles. As I said, Wagga Wagga is also one of the few regional airports in Australia equipped with an instrument landing system. The latest graduation from the Australian Airline Pilot Academy was conducted just last Friday, with eight graduates getting their wings. They will be very much welcomed into aviation circles and certainly they will go on to bigger and better things.

I commend this report to the House, especially the final recommendation, No. 7:

That the 1:36 ratio be retained until such a time that it can be demonstrated that a change to a 1:50 cabin crew ratio in Australia will not result in reduced levels of safety or security.

As I said before, safety is paramount in aviation, and may that long continue.