Mr HUSIC (Chifley—Government Whip) (11:48): I appreciate the opportunity in the parliament to be able to participate in a range of standing committees. They provide breadth in terms of the scope of policy that you get to look at, the types of issues that confront the general public and legislation that is being considered before the House. These are things that you would not necessarily look into, have experience in or need to investigate, but as a result of this experience you do build a greater understanding of issues in various industry sectors.
Being involved in the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications, which prepared this report, was very illuminating on a number of levels. In particular, when you consider the serious public safety issues that are covered by this report, you get a greater appreciation of what is at stake and what needs to occur in the way of reform. We had the opportunity to be involved in this inquiry from March following a referral to us by the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport. It is worth noting that cabin crew ratios in this country have been a matter under regular consideration from time to time, sometimes prompted by unfortunate incidents that have required governments of both political parties to take action to clearly outline their policy position on this issue. The term ‘cabin crew ratios’ effectively refers to the minimum number of cabin crew members or flight attendants needed on an aircraft as a proportion of the number of passengers or passenger seats, depending on the context. This is important because many people would consider that it is the passenger seats or the passengers themselves who have bearing on what is required, from a safety perspective.
More than anything else, the issue of safety was the critical focus of the committee. This was not an issue of whether or not there would be passenger amenity or comfort, though these are important factors on flights. The necessity of the ratio in its most important element refers to the issue of being able to evacuate passengers quickly in the unfortunate event of an emergency requiring quick evacuation.
Currently, the ratio on single aisled aircraft with 36 to 216 seats is one crew member to 36 passengers. An aircraft with more than 216 seats, or with twin aisles, would require a minimum of one crew member for each floor-level exit. It is believed the origins of it are connected with the introduction of the Fokker F27 Friendship in the fifties. We discovered through the course of the inquiry that this has been a longstanding ratio. But what also became apparent of the ratio is that no-one could point to a legislative instrument or requirement—something that existed in a tangible form to say, ‘This is what we followed when.’ It has become part of the accepted operating procedures or has been worked towards over many years.
There have been attempts to water down the ratio. But there was a well-publicised security incident—and the report picks up on this—on a QantasLink flight from Melbourne to Launceston in 2003, as a result of which the then transport minister, the Hon. John Anderson MP, took quick steps to rule out any change. He was asked by then opposition leader Simon Crean, in light of the events, to confirm whether or not CASA was considering changing regulations to permit fewer flight attendants after being lobbied by the airlines to do so as a cost-saving measure. Mr Anderson was asked whether he would rule that out. He did, categorically—on the spot.
I mention it because this move, this public position, back in 2003, was a clear expression by both sides of the House. The then opposition, the current government, had spoken out on this matter and had expressed its view that these ratios should not change. The then government took a similar position, clearly signalling to the regulator, to the airlines, that the ratio, as it stood at that time—the one in 36 ratio, which is currently being discussed before the House—should stand. There was no equivocation.
What has occurred in the meantime is that, in effect, we have had airlines lobby the regulator to change the position through exemptions. I will discuss this later on. The argument for the change was that there was established what is referred to as ‘world’s best practice’ that would have diluted the ratios. It became apparent that the Qantas Group argued that a one in 50 ratio constituted world’s best practice, but this was criticised by the Australian airline pilots association who said that there was no documentation to suggest that one in 50 enhanced safety. This is entirely relevant here. There clearly needs to be an evidence based approach or some sort of evidence that can demonstrate that changing these ratios enhances safety, and there is not. It can be argued by the airlines that this does not exist with one in 36, but it can also be argued that there is nothing to suggest one in 50. Some people, and certainly the airlines looking at the manufacturers, claim that there are processes whereby this has been tested out and the one to 50 deemed to be a safe operating mechanism. Their view is that the manufacturers themselves, as a result of the regulators in the states requiring it, set a test and that we should follow—that is, just because a regulator in another jurisdiction, in another part of the world, deems it okay, we should just carte blanche accept that that regulation should suit here. I do not for a moment disparage the view—and I think it needs to be clear—that when regulation works elsewhere and there are things that can be learnt from those experiences in our own backyard we should by all means do it.
But when it comes to safety I think there is a greater expectation that local regulators will go the extra step to assure themselves about safety when there is any move to change regulations. From a public perception it can water down safety. That is what would be weighing on the minds of a lot of passengers if they were asked whether they would be comfortable about going from a one to 36 ration to one in 50. Passengers want to be assured that safety is protected. In my personal view, not enough has been done to demonstrate that.
John McCormick, from CASA, explained to the committee his view that he was not convinced that one in 36 provides a higher standard of safety than one to 50. But he said:
I agree with you that there is absolutely no reason why Australia cannot have a higher safety standard in some areas, or any area, for that matter. We should have the best safety that we can, commensurate with commercial reality and what the level is.
I accept that this can cut either way. This reference to the term ‘commercial reality’ would make people take a step back and reconsider. Obviously, you do not want to do something that is so above and beyond that it places significant commercial pressure on the operators. At the same time, people do not want to have their safety compromised, or to have the perception that their safety is being compromised, in pursuit of lower costs. From my perspective, it seemed odd that the airlines were arguing that this was not about cost. They said world best practice would allow for them to go to one to 50, but when asked what restoring the one to 36 ratio would do, they instantly reacted on the basis that it would add to cost. So I think they need to be a lot more transparent about what motive exists, from their perspective, for advocating a watered down ratio.
In terms of this point about the one to 50, what became clear was that exemptions were being granted by CASA to go to the one to 50 ratio despite the fact that, as I said earlier, back in 2003 the then Howard government, via its minister, had expressed a firm view that it would not entertain any watering down of the ratio. This position was supported and advanced by the current government when it was then in opposition. It was clear that both sides of politics took the view that the ratio should not be diminished. However, CASA, as a result of lobbying by the airlines, watered down this ratio through these exemptions and in effect created a new standard. When parliament caught up to the fact that this had occurred, its ability to take a position on it was limited. However, fortunately we have had this reference to the committee and we have been able to investigate it. But one thing that has become clear is that, if both sides of parliament have indicated a clear policy position, regulators should not be entitled to in effect defy the expressed will of the government or the opposition in the parliament about what is to be expected, particularly with something as important to safety.
As I have said before, on this issue there needs to be a focus on evidence. It is important to note that it has been admitted that the evacuation demonstrations that are used to establish the ratio are partial. That is what the report refers to. It says that a partial evacuation demonstration requires that part of an aircraft is populated with passengers, crew are placed on board, 50 per cent of the doors are made available and the lights are switched off to replicate a possible evacuation scenario. Passengers and crew are not to be aware ahead of time of which doors are unavailable, and the airline—and by that I mean the manufacturer—is requested to demonstrate that the aircraft can be evacuated safely within 90 seconds. For safety purposes, the passengers disembark via stairs. In this controlled environment you do not use the slides, the reason being that in that controlled demonstration use of the slides present an OH&S risk. But this is the very risk that we are trying to investigate through the manufacturer’s demonstration of the ability to crew aircraft to ensure that there can be safe evacuation. It has been pointed out that the demonstrations have a pass-fail criteria and that some of the operators had failed at two attempts and had had to wait several months after a full investigation of the unsatisfactory result to then try again before the demonstration has been deemed successful.
Further, what is of concern to me is what I would describe as risk shift—that is, the assumption that, for example, passengers will share a greater burden of both security and evacuation assistance. By security, I mean that there is an expectation that passengers will keep an eye out for what in their own view presents a security risk and that they may intervene or assist in times of evacuation. Obviously, people by their nature will attempt to help people in distress or need. However, in these circumstances it is incumbent on the operator to not make that assumption—that, as a bare minimum, they will have levels of crewing that can ensure safe evacuation. They should not build into that the expectation that passengers will by their very nature assist in evacuation.
There was, from my point of view, certainly a concern throughout the course of this inquiry that there will be an unsaid expectation that passengers will assist in times of evacuation, when in actual fact there will be people of various requirements in terms of their physical capabilities who will need more assistance, specialised assistance and that not every member of the public will be able to necessarily help: the disabled, the elderly and people who have mobility issues. I certainly think that the airlines are expecting too much.
I would make two points: one, that the airlines have gone behind the back of the parliament to reach this revised ratio and, two, that they are not being transparent with customers about that. Finally, the regulator, despite the expressed will of the parliament, has set, in effect, a new standard, and certainly the recommendations in this report require something that is better, something that is more transparent and something that involves the public but, importantly, is much more evidence based than what occurs at the current tim