Anger amid pilot crisis as visa rules relaxed for foreigners

Anger amid pilot crisis as visa rules relaxed for foreigners

Source: Matthew Denholm, The Australian, December 28 2017

Peter Dutton will allow foreign ​pilots into Australia on two-year work visas in an effort to fix a worsening national shortage that is already grounding planes and forcing flight cancellations.

But amid a global scramble to secure pilots, a slump in training and increasing foreign ownership of Australian training schools, Qantas pilots questioned the quality of those likely to be ​recruited to keep ​regional air routes ​operating.

“The United States and China are paying huge money and that doesn’t leave much for the sort of wages they are paying in regional Australia,” said Murray Butt, President of the Australian and International Pilots Association, which represents more than 2000 Qantas pilots. “We need to look at the Chinese airlines buying up flight schools in Australia. That might fix their problem but it doesn’t fix ours.”

The peak body for regional airlines yesterday said it had successfully lobbied the Home Affairs Minister to allow foreign pilots to be hired for up to two years, in light of the shortage of sufficiently skilled local pilots. Mike Higgins, chief executive of the Regional Aviation Association of Australia, said the government had advised that the decision would be confirmed in a revised skilled occupation list — replacing the former 457 visa regime — to be released next month. He also revealed the association was talking to Mr Dutton about extending the visa period to four years, given doubts whether experienced foreign pilots would relocate for just two years.

However, Qantas pilots called for a government white paper to ​address declining output from — and rising foreign ownership of — Australian flying schools. “Bringing in foreign pilots is definitely a very short-term fix and, given the market, I’m not sure of the quality of the pilots they are going to get,” Mr Butt said. “I do foresee big problems going forward. The government is taking a very short-term view on this.”

Veteran aviator and former air safety chief Dick Smith said the use of foreign pilots was an indictment of 15 years or more of misplaced government policy, which had threatened the ​viability of flight training. “The fact that there is a need to bring in foreign pilots is outrageous — we are a developed Western country with a very high level of education and we should be supplying pilots not just for Australia but for the world,” Mr Smith said. “We have the safest airline in the world — Qantas — because it’s used highly trained, Australian pilots … Now what we’re doing is an experiment: bringing people in from overseas.” The shortage follows poaching of major airline pilots by overseas airlines, and increasing foreign ownership of pilot training schools, including by Chinese companies to train Chinese pilots.

Impacts are already being felt, with pilot shortages a factor in a ​recent rash of cancellations on Qantas regional services, while multiple sources told The Australian Qantas subsidiaries already had foreign pilots flying Dash-8 aircraft on some regional services. Mr Smith joined regional airlines and Qantas pilots in calling for a rethink of government regulation of flight training, to remove unaffordable and overly bureaucratic regulation linked to school closures and buyouts by foreign companies. Mr Smith said flight training was down 35 per cent in Australia, while recent federal government figures confirm a 40 per cent decline in the number of general-aviation flying hours in the five years to 2015.

Mr Higgins insisted the recruitment of foreign pilots was essential: “In the middle of last year the government included ​pilots and avionics engineers on their banned 457 visa list, so we advocated with Peter Dutton and we’ve finally got halfway back to where we need to go. “We’ve had success in getting the Department of Immigration to review that list, which will be published next month. It means we can get visa pilots across (from overseas) for a two-year period, but we really need to get them for a four-year period.” Mr Higgins insisted regional airlines would pay foreign pilots the same wages and conditions as Australian pilots and that the move was the only short-term ​solution to the shortage.

A spokesman for Mr Dutton confirmed “airline pilot” had been added to an Occupations List for Temporary Work Visas, for sponsored jobs in regional Australia, following the crackdown on the 457 visa system. He would not comment on what status pilots would have in a revised list to be released next month, saying this was determined by the department. However, he said the new system was aimed at addressing skills needs while putting local workers first. “Amendments to the occupations list are based on skills needs of the Australian economy, in line with the Turnbull government’s policy that Australian workers should have priority,” he said.

Sources said currently up to eight Dash-8 aircraft operated by Qantas or its subsidiaries were grounded due to pilot shortages, as well as several 737s. Another said up to 15 per cent of Jetstar’s planned flights had been scrapped due to pilot shortage. Qantas, which owns Jetstar, said it was unable to respond ​directly to these examples yesterday, but played down the issue, while other sources suggested pilot shortage was only one factor behind such groundings. Qantas conceded pilot shortages had been a factor in recent flight cancellations in regional areas, with flow-on schedule changes in major capitals to address the problem. “We had a spike in flight ​cancellations in some regional markets during October and ​November … due to a mix of ​engineering and pilot issues,” spokesman Andrew McGinnes said. “To stabilise things, we made some tweaks to a few parts of the network that saw us operate fewer flights but with larger aircraft so there was a minimal impact on actual capacity. “We’re in the middle of training up about 600 of our pilots and that reduces the number we have in reserve, to bring in if someone calls in sick.” Mr Higgins, whose association represents 34 regional airlines as well as flight training firms, said regional airlines were hardest hit, frequently losing pilots to Qantas and Virgin, who in turn were seeking to replace pilots poached by overseas carriers.