Qantas has issued a detailed rebuttal of claims made about it at a Senate enquiry hearing on Friday, while CASA too has rejected claims that it is too close to Qantas and that it has failed in its regulatory oversight of Qantas’s offshore maintenance.
The Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee’s inquiry named ‘Qantas’s future as a strong national carrier supporting jobs in Australia’ has been established to “consider what initiatives can be taken by the government to ensure Qantas remains a strong national carrier supporting aviation jobs in Australia…” and heard evidence in a public hearing in Sydney on Friday from senior Qantas executives including CEO Alan Joyce and senior figures from unions representing Qantas workers, including ALAEA (Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association) federal secretary Stephen Purvinas, the ASU’s Linda White and the TWU’s Tony Sheldon.
The most serious of the allegations raised at the hearing came from the ALAEA’s Purvinas, whose written submission to the committee (which can be downloaded here) detailed claimed instances of issues with maintenance performed on Qantas aircraft at offshore heavy maintenance facilities.
In particular the submission and Purvinas’s hearing evidence highlighted a D-check performed on 747-400 VH-OJG at HAECO in Hong Kong in 2008, where “A number of the mount bolts on three engines were found to have the washers installed upside down.”
It continued: “Three of the four engines were not held on properly. If any one of these engines had fallen off during flight a most likely outcome would have been the loss of the aircraft.”
Purvinas told the Senate committee hearing that the defect was not documented properly by Qantas nor CASA.
“I have a very dim view on CASA’s oversight of maintenance in this country and outside of Australia. We do not have confidence in CASA to provide effective oversight,” he told the hearing.
Further, the ALAEA federal secretary observed: “I think they’ve been a victim of corporate capture. They’ve gotten too close to the airline. A lot of them are friends with people who work for Qantas. And I just think that [is] corporate capture, Stockholm Syndrome, whatever you want to call it.”
CASA subsequently refuted the claims of being too close to Qantas, and of failing in its oversight duties.
“We certainly do not favour any particular airline. We certainly do not turn a blind eye to any practices,” CASA spokesman Peter Gibson told ABC Radio’s AM program. “Where we have evidence of safety standards slipping, we step in and take action.”
In the particular case of VH-OJG the CASA spokesman noted: “As it turned out, it was one washer on one bolt on one engine that had been incorrectly installed. And naturally that shouldn’t happen, but that’s the scope of what it was.”
For its part, in its response regarding maintenance issues Qantas wrote: “FACT: The union is again playing the safety card by compiling a list of maintenance issues dating back 16 years in an attempt to claim that maintenance done outside of Australia is unsafe.
“These claims have been investigated by CASA and these facilities continue to be approved by CASA and used by the world’s leading airlines.”
What the Qantas rebuttal did not address was the ALAEA’s claim that offshore maintenance facilities had unacceptably high levels of LAME to AME ratios.
In citing the example of SIAEC, SASCO and ST Aero in Singapore, the ALAEA submission reads: “The LAME/AME ratio at these facilities as previously reported by the ALAEA to a Senate enquiry in 2007 was one-to-11, one LAME certifying and for himself or herself and 11 other persons. We consider these levels of licensed supervision to be inadequate and dangerous.” The introductory comments to the ALAEA’s submission notes: “The traditional ratio in Australia is one-to-two, one LAME certifying for himself or herself and two other persons.” The ALAEA claimed that HAECO had a one-to-eight LAME/AME ratio, the Lufthansa Technik Philippines facility, which had worked on Qantas A330s in the past and today maintains Qantas A380s “one LAME certifying and for himself/herself and 22 other persons.”
Said Purvinas at the hearing: “What that means is the more people he [the LAME] has to supervise, he will not be able to check their work as well as someone who only has to check two people. It’s a way they make themselves cheaper…”
The hearing also saw Alan Joyce questioned over what structural changes and further potential job losses via offshoring Qantas would instigate if the federal government’s planned changes to the Qantas Sale Act passed the parliament, but the Qantas boss was noncommittal.
“We need for the future the same flexibility our competitor has,” Joyce said. “So if our competitor has the ability, which it does, to do all of its heavy maintenance, its call centres, everything, offshore then for Qantas to compete on a level playing field, to have the same options as that competition, it needs the same freedom.”
The ASU’s Linda White estimated as many as one-in-three of her union members’ 6,500 or so Qantas positions could be offshored.
“Anybody who doesn’t interact with passengers could easily be offshored,” she told the Senate hearing.
Tony Sheldon, meanwhile, took Qantas to task for not being able to define exactly where its planned 5,000 job cuts, announced on February 27, would fall.
“The workforce doesn’t know and the company doesn’t know,” Sheldon told the enquiry. “There has been no explanation of how Qantas came up with the 5,000. They will stick to the 5,000 no matter what.”
The Qantas response to “incorrect claims” made at the Senate hearing can be read here in full.