Published on 5th September 2022 at 21:36

Staff and union officials have told us that a combination of factors including inexperienced ground handling staff, staff shortages, and flight delays resulting in increase in hours and fatigue, is giving rise to concerns about safety. What’s your response?

We completely reject baseless and generalised safety claims from these unions, who have a history of playing the safety card to further their industrial agendas.

We operate in one of the most closely regulated industries in Australia and are subject to considerable oversight from numerous authorities, including CASA. We have an established safety management system for managing all aspects of safety, including fatigue. Fatigue risk is managed using data and medical advice and employees are encouraged to report fatigue.

We note that the unions are not making these claims of other airlines, most of whom use the same ground handling firms as Qantas and who have had similar, and in some cases worse operational performance due to staffing challenges.

We’ve been told of an incident whereby employees working for a ground handling contractor loaded bags incorrectly onto a Qantas plane – the bags that should have been at the back went in the front and vice versa, that this was only realised just before the cargo door closed, which has caused concern among Qantas employees from a safety perspective. Are you aware of this and what’s your response?

Based on the limited information that 4 Corners has provided about this incident, it appears that the load supervisor identified the error and the baggage was loaded correctly before the aircraft departed. This shows a safety management system that is working and designed to capture human error through multiple fail safes. Incidents like this occurred when the work was done in house, the only difference is the TWU chose not to publicise them.

Data shows a lower rate of incidents compared to when ground handing was done in-house. Proactive hazard reporting rates are also higher since outsourcing, demonstrating a strong reporting culture by the employees of these ground handlers.

Qantas used outsourced ground handlers for many years in a total of 55 of 65 ports across Australia, which the union did not regard as a safety concern. The decision during the COVID crisis was to outsource the remaining 10 ports, including to companies that already worked for Qantas as well as multiple other airlines.

The Licensed Aircraft Maintenance Engineers Association and various employees say that aircraft engineering staff numbers are down by up to 35% on pre-Covid levels, that the result is that they are struggling to get through planned maintenance, and that the risk of mistakes has increased. How do you respond?

We require less engineers than we had pre-COVID as our maintenance requirements are much lower. This is due to the fact we are flying less (international capacity is at ~60%), have seven less A380s in service than pre-COVID and retired one of the most maintenance-intensive part of our fleet in the 747s.

As more aircraft return to service and international flying returns to pre-COVID levels, we will recruit more engineers. Qantas does 90 per cent of its aircraft maintenance in Australia. No other airline does heavy maintenance in Australia.

Numerous employees tell us that in the first half of 2020, managers discouraged customer-facing staff from wearing masks on the grounds it could scare passengers. What’s your response?

We can’t verify those generic claims but we can give clarity on our mask policy in the initial phases of the pandemic.
In answering this question in 2022, it’s worth remembering that the World Health Organisation didn’t recommend the wearing of masks by the general community until 6 June 2020. The Australian Government didn’t mandate masks to be worn on domestic flights until January 2021.

From February 2020 onwards, Qantas made masks available to any crew who wanted to wear them. By May, we were also offering them to passengers and requiring them on flights where COVID-outbreaks were occurring. Crew operating repatriation flights to COVID hot-spots were required to wear masks and so were passengers.

It’s worth noting that Qantas was one of the few international airlines that required passengers to be vaccinated for COVID, and one of the first Australian companies to require it for employees.
Several years’ worth of global data shows that COVID does not transmit easily on flights and there is no evidence that any Qantas cabin crew contracted COVID from passengers on board flights.

In response to Qantas’ decision to offer masks to all customers onboard our aircraft ahead of Government requirements , the acting Chief Medical Officer said on 22 May 2020: We had a discussion last week with Qantas and worked through the sort of things that they might want to look at but we made it very clear that like all other industries in Australia, they needed to do their own risk assessment and come up with their own way of mitigating that risk. And so that was announced yesterday and there’s been a lot of media about that today, about how they’re going to do that. They’ve included masks. We didn’t specifically say they should include masks but that was one of their ways that they’ve really looked at how they can decrease the risk whilst also looking to have a viable industry and to be able to fly.

What do the improvement notices that SafeWork NSW issued on 2/03/2020 to Qantas Airways Limited and QGS, relating to cleaning of planes, say about the adequacy of Qantas’s approach to health and safety during the early phase of Covid?

The key part of this question is “early phase of COVID”. Throughout the pandemic, Qantas acted on advice from Federal Government health officials and the World Health Organisation. As health officials learnt more about the virus in those early months and updated their advice, we updated our policies and procedures, including enhancing aircraft cleaning measures and providing additional personal protective equipment for employees.

Despite baseless claims to the contrary, employees cleaning aircraft at the time were provided safety equipment including masks, gloves and gowns and aircraft were cleaned using a chemical disinfectant, not “just water”, as has been claimed previously. (The high level of public interest at the time saw coverage specifically on what steps airlines were taking – such as this SMH article from February 2020). Importantly, the medical evidence at the time was that surface transmission was low risk. That evidence remains the case today.

Additional information on Qantas employee agreements:

The Qantas Group has over 50 EBAs covering some 22,000 employees. Some of these EBAs date back to the 1990s and enshrine conditions that are from a different era of aviation and similar to those used by Ansett.

In the face of new domestic competitors as well as international ones, Qantas has established newer EBAs with more modern terms and conditions. These sit alongside the legacy agreements. This effectively ‘grandfathers’ the older conditions for long-serving employees while enabling Qantas to gradually become more competitive over time.

This is common across the Australian industrial landscape. These newer agreements are negotiated with unions, voted on by employees and endorsed by the Fair Work Commission. They offer above award terms and conditions.