As well as impacting airlines, airports, ground handling service companies and aviation-dependent sectors, the pandemic response had devastating impacts on many aviation workers. The committee heard that the impacts of the pandemic on the aviation workforce as a whole have been manifold: airlines made drastic cuts in staffing; skills and accreditation have lapsed; and many workers have left the aviation sector. Some have retired, while others have sought more stable and secure employment elsewhere.
Airlines have used the full range of workforce management and industrial relations mechanisms available to them to balance competing priorities, including: reducing costs and maintaining cash reserves; minimising debt accumulation; and retaining skilled workers for when passenger demand lifts. However, some of these mechanisms have attracted strong criticisms.
This chapter looks at the impact of the pandemic and associated response measures on Australia's aviation workforce; in particular:
the loss of highly skilled aviation workers, including:
labour shortages and potential impacts on safety;
workers leaving the sector and the implications of an ageing workforce;
the psychological and financial impacts of the pandemic on aviation workers;
Qantas' workforce decisions during the pandemic—specifically the outsourcing of ground handling services, and the long haul cabin crew Enterprise Bargaining Agreement dispute; and
factors affecting future workforce supply.
The chapter incorporates testimony from workers impacted by standdowns, downsizing and outsourcing, and finishes with the committee's view.
Loss of skilled aviation workers
The aviation sector is dependent on a highly specialised and skilled workforce, comprised of various professionals ranging from pilots, engineers, and air traffic controllers, to cabin crew and ground handlers.
Inquiry participants were concerned that, without a skilled aviation workforce, the sector would suffer from reduced consumer confidence and poor safety outcomes, and be unable to meet increased consumer demand for air travel. Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Managing Director of Virgin Australia, Ms Jayne Hrdlicka, advised the committee that 'implications' of such a loss would 'be significant' for the economy.
The committee heard that the aviation sector is highly regulated and its workforce is required to 'understand and comply with an extensive set of regulations and requirements to ensure a safe and secure airline environment'. A high proportion of workers hold licenses, certifications and tertiary qualifications; and vocational education and training are required for a range of roles, such as airport safety, cargo services, air traffic control and flight operations. The Australian Industry Standards reported that, in 2017, 53 per cent of aviation workers held a vocational education qualification as their highest level of study, compared with just 29 per cent for the overall Australian working population.
Lay-offs and standdowns
As discussed in Chapter 3, there has been a significant drop in the number of people employed in the aviation sector compared with pre-pandemic levels. The Australian Industry and Skills Committee estimates that the sector employed around 65 000 people in January 2022, compared with over 90 000 before the pandemic.
The Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications (the Department of Infrastructure) submitted that, at the peak of the crisis, over 30 000 aviation workers were stood down or laid off. In addition, the Australian Airports Association estimated that more than 70 per cent of staff at regional airports were placed on reduced hours, re‑deployed or made redundant.
The committee heard that reductions in core airport jobs also affect the jobs in airport-related service industries, such as food and beverage, retail and hospitality, and the deferral or slowing down of on-airport capital works and construction activity. The Australian Airports Association explained that 'this means reduced wages and salaries for staff, contractors and suppliers, with negative effects across the wider economy, particularly in regional Australia'.
Many other aviation businesses also stood down or laid off staff. Mr Hiranjan Aloysius, CEO of dnata Catering Australia, informed the committee that, before COVID, 'dnata employed approximately 6,800 people in Australia'. As at 3 March 2021, 2500 of those people had 'been let go' and 'a further 1500 remain stood down'.
Mr Stephen Purvinas, Federal Secretary of the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association, estimated that in the 18 months from March 2020, approximately 700 licensed aircraft maintenance engineers left the industry. Similarly, Mr Chris Pigott, from the Territory Aviation Skills Centre, said he had 'never seen such a shortage of aircraft engineers in the country', despite many years in the business.
Labour shortages and snap lockdowns
As noted earlier, in early 2021 there were positive signs that the aviation industry was recovering, and Australia experienced a progressive 'ramp up' of domestic traffic in March and April 2021 as a result of increased consumer confidence, lower airfares and greater competition between airlines. Australian Services Union (ASU) Assistant National Secretary, Ms Emeline Gaske described this period as a hopeful time for aviation workers:
… the airlines were planning their ramp-up again. Workers were being brought off leave without pay, workers were being retrained and airlines were at 80 or 100 per cent of their pre-COVID capacity.
The committee was told, however, that due to job losses throughout the pandemic, 'the reality was that [airlines] didn't have enough staff'.
ASU Victorian delegate, Ms Jayne Lacey, spoke to her experiences as a front‑line aviation worker: 'When we returned, due to the redundancies and those people who were still on leave without pay, we were horrendously short of staff'. Ms Lacey said that, to address the labour shortage, Qantas employed a number of casual workers:
They have no future job security and, depending on their personal circumstances, they may not be eligible for anything from the government package … That's one of the concerns I have for the industry. Are we going to end up just being a totally casualised workforce, without job security and without many rights?
These concerns were echoed by another aviation worker who suggested that Qantas was 'using COVID-19 as an excuse to cut the workforce with plans to backfill with casual labour once demand returns'.
Submitters reiterated that, without ongoing support to aviation workers, Australia 'won't have an aviation industry at all, because it will be grounded for months for lack of skills'.
Particular concerns were raised in relation to the effect of this on regional Australia. Ms Jackson informed the committee that in regional Australia, where 'outsourced ground handling is 100 per cent for both check-in and baggage handling', 'the likelihood of aircraft being grounded because we simply don't have the staff is very real'.
Impacts on safety
Participants were concerned that the loss of experienced staff, and replacement with new trainees, could lead to safety concerns.
Ms Teri O'Toole, Federal Secretary of the Flight Attendants Association of Australia (FAAA), outlined the safety focus of flight crew roles:
Cabin crew are first responders. Their job requires them to run towards the fire. They are required to save lives with CPR. They defend the flight deck with their lives and they use deadly force, when necessary, to protect the aircraft and passengers. These are safety-sensitive roles.
President of the ACTU, Ms Michelle O'Neil told the committee that insecure jobs, and 'a high turnover of people', 'drives down safety standards' for both workers and passengers. She highlighted the relatively high level of risk in the industry, importance of comprehensive training and skill development, and the need for workers to keep their skills 'current and developed during their period of time at work'.
Ms O'Neil observed that global research has established a clear 'link between recognised, supported and well-trained workers who have long-term careers within aviation and safe airlines'. Conversely, 'a direct consequence' of a 'revolving door' of workers 'is that people's skills are impacted', creating a 'race to the bottom', which impacts not only workers' safety, 'but also ultimately the safety of passengers and the whole industry'.
A Qantas flight crew worker highlighted the high-pressure flight crew are under due to the safety aspects of their role, saying:
[Flight attendants are] tested by your airline and by CASA every six months with a pass mark of 85 per cent. You are permitted in your career to fail that exam only three times, and then you are dismissed. Why would I put myself through that for $23 an hour when I can go and work somewhere on the ground, in a restaurant, with no jet lag, at home with my family every night, and not having to worry about the gruelling effects of jet lag, dehydration, constant time changes, et cetera?
Outsourced ground services worker, Mr Brett Langford, pointed out that Qantas' safety record has 'taken a dive on the list of world's safest airlines—from first to seventh', saying this was an inevitable outcome of outsourcing safety-sensitive work.
A current Qantas flight crew worker concluded that if companies offer 'less remuneration' they will 'have a lesser skill set of people to do' the job, which is 'a disaster waiting to happen'. He said:
We're safety professionals. We run towards the fire, not from it. I can't see that anybody in their right mind would be willing to that for the money that the modern award offers.
Workers leaving the sector
The committee heard that many aviation workers sought secondary employment as a result of the downturn. This issue was discussed at length in the committee's interim report. Ms Jackson stated that '[w]hat we're seeing is that most of our staff have sought secondary employment simply to be able to pay bills and to put food on the table'.
The committee received further evidence that the loss of knowledge and experience has been dramatic and, for many, 'the rate of recovery will force a choice between the uncertainty of resuming their aviation careers and the apparent security of alternative employment'.
Similarly, the Australian Aviation Ground Handlers Industry Alliance (AAGHIA) said the significant employee attrition rate meant there was a need to recruit and skill-up new staff at a faster than usual rate to meet what was predicted to be 'a relatively rapid resumption of flight capacity'. The AAGHIA foreshadowed that there would be 'reluctance from new candidates about the stability of the aviation industry, especially when compared against less volatile alternatives'.
During its second appearance before the committee, in March 2022, the FAAA said that, after two years of standdowns, Qantas offered voluntary redundancies, but only to direct Qantas employees employed prior to 2008, not those employed after 2008 by 'their subsidiary Qantas cabin crew Australia'. This meant 'a thousand Australian based cabin crew with experience between 19 and 40 years left the profession'.
As part of its consultation with the aviation sector on the Future of Australia's Aviation Sector Issues Paper, the Future of Aviation Reference Panel found that Australia has little to no workforce pipeline and no new early career entrants. The committee heard that this is compounded by an ageing demographic in the current workforce.
Many submitters highlighted the age distribution in the aviation sector, a large proportion of which is aged 45 years and over. The aviation workforce, with an average age of 41.6, is ageing at 1.4 times the national rate.
The implications of an aging aviation workforce were raised by submitters. In particular, the committee heard that the impacts of COVID-19 are compounded by an aging aviation workforce and a surge in anticipated retirements. By way of example, the AIPA submitted that many pilots have taken early retirement, while the ALAEA noted that recent redundancy packages have been oversubscribed by licensed aircraft maintenance engineers.
Similarly, Mr Jason Harfield, CEO of Airservices Australia, explained that Airservices Australia has an 'aging demographic that is due to retire over the next three years'.
Possible solutions offered by inquiry participants are discussed in Chapter 5 and the Government's plan for the future of aviation in Australia – the Aviation Recovery Framework – is discussed in Chapter 6.
Psychological and financial impacts on workers
The impact of standdowns and job losses on the wellbeing, mental health and financial future of aviation sector workers was addressed in the committee's interim report. Since that report was tabled in March 2021, these impacts have continued to compound, with Delta, then Omicron, causing snap lockdowns and travel restrictions, knocking back an industry that was just struggling to its feet.
The effects of the pandemic on mental health within the aviation sector have been widespread. The committee heard that financial challenges, and the ongoing uncertainty faced by aviation workers, have had ongoing impacts on their psychological wellbeing.
According to the FAAA, Qantas' move to terminate the EBA after '20 months of standdown' has had a 'devastating' impact on the already fragile mental health of many flight crew:
15 per cent reported having 'suicidal thoughts';
34 per cent said 'they needed professional or medical help to cope';
one in eight had to 'leave their homes' during the standdown; and
one in nine 'suffered a relationship breakdown from the stress of the standdown'.
The Rural Doctors Association of Australia highlighted the flow‑on health impacts of the pandemic response on sectors reliant on aviation, such as tourism. This included the mental health impacts for rural and remote Australians, many of whose livelihoods are dependent on those industries.
Testimony from workers
The committee heard evidence directly from a number of workers in the aviation and tourism sectors as part of the inquiry. This was explored extensively in the interim report, however these concerns continued to be raised by workers. Extracts are included in Box 4.1 below.
Box 4.1: Testimony from workers
Jayne—stood down multiple times
'I have been in the aviation industry for about 10 years … There is no doubt that the pandemic has been a worldwide disaster for aviation and its employees. For instance, last year my last shift was on 29 March, and I did not return to my job until April this year. Whilst we were grateful for the government package, as you know it was on a decreasing level. I know that actually brought quite a lot of hardship to many of my colleagues, and some of them were left with no alternative at all but to take a redundancy and look elsewhere for work … at the current time I'm actually stood down again, until 3 October. Who knows whether that will be our last standdown. I just don't know.'—Ms Jayne Lacey, airline employee (guest services)
Claudine—struggled to make ends meet
'I'm 43 years of age and I've been in the aviation industry for 21 years, since October 2000. … My youngest has quite severe asthma, and my mother has just recovered from double breast cancer. I say this because during the COVID we've been terrified to be anywhere around my mother and terrified for my youngest. In April 2020 we were stood down from work with the information that the standdown would be for an eight-week period. Eight weeks came and went… In August 2020 we were financially in trouble, with strata bills banking up and with electricity bills. It caused us to reach out for help, for counselling. We've had to take out a $20,000 loan to make ends meet'.—Ms Claudine Tenana, aviation worker for 21 years
Tina—intermittent work and casual jobs
'I worked as a pilot across Australia for a number of years and joined Qantas in 1999 in operations control. … I was stood down before Easter 2020. I didn't work for six weeks. [Work is now intermittent.]… The financial and personal impact has been enormous. At one point in the last year I had five casual jobs. I currently have four casual jobs on top of the Qantas stand-up standdowns. I have done multiple courses in an attempt to upskill to secure better work. … I live as frugally as I can. I have cancelled my health and other insurances to cut back on expenses. When this first started I was eating one meal a day. I haven't bought one piece of clothing in a year or had a haircut. I have used New South Wales state government electricity vouchers. Sydney is an incredibly expensive city and even the original JobKeeper rate was nowhere near enough to live on. I have withdrawn all the super I can to pay my existing expenses.'—Ms Tina Courtenay, Qantas flight dispatch worker
Qantas cost cutting—increasing insecurity
The pandemic revealed how insecure work has become for a significant proportion of the aviation workforce. Inquiry participants submitted that the majority of aviation workers are now employed on a permanent part-time or casual basis, and there has been an ongoing trend toward outsourcing as a cost saving measure by airlines over recent decades.
According to the Transport Workers' Union (TWU), increased rates of outsourcing and labour hire can be traced back to the privatisation of Qantas and airports in the 1990s which, it argued, 'meant aviation companies made decisions that boosted their bottom lines, CEO pay packets and shareholder dividends but saw them reluctant to invest in their companies and left them exposed long‑term'. By 2015, over 40 per cent of Australian aviation workers were employed on a part-time or casual basis, and around 90 per cent of the Qantas Ground Services workforce was either part-time or casual.
Early on in the inquiry the ACTU argued that a 'failure to support the aviation industry would likely accelerate these trends'. This comment preceded the decision by Qantas in November 2020 to illegally outsource its ground handling operations at 10 airports—discussed at length in the committee's interim report.
When the ACTU appeared before the committee again in March 2022, Ms O'Neil said there were now 'two crises in the aviation sector'—COVID and insecure work:
[Following] a pre-COVID period of aggressive management tactics of turning secure jobs into insecure ones through outsourcing and cost cutting … the crisis of COVID has been their excuse to accelerate the crisis of insecure work. [E]mployers like Qantas use this crisis to deepen the insecure work crisis facing the workers that they rely on everyday. Three examples are: the plan to wipe out its entire ground operations workforce, aiming to never employ another baggage handler, ramp worker or cabin cleaner; implementing permanent changes to rostering, reducing average shift loadings and removing longstanding entitlements; and significant reductions to maintenance and repair staff.
Qantas argued the company's decisions to illegally outsource ground handling, introduce 'a two-year wage freeze', and have 'difficult conversations about [its] long-haul cabin crew agreement' represent 'hard choices' the company had to make to ensure it 'had the right cost base to enable recovery'. Witnesses refuted this suggestion, pointing to the alternative approaches taken by Virgin and Rex during the pandemic (discussed in the sections below).
Ms O'Toole observed that the effect of dividing the workforce through outsourcing and the use of labour hire and subsidiaries makes it particularly difficult to assert bargaining power:
Within the Qantas Group on one aircraft type, doing the same work on the same routes, you can have up to five different entities with five different sets of conditions. These entities are all subsidiaries or third-party labour hire companies. Additionally, where the union do try to take similar bargaining strategies on this work group doing the same work, we could run foul of pattern bargaining legislation.
Ms O'Neil maintained that the issue of industrial relations is 'central' to understanding the challenges of the aviation sector caused by the pandemic. She argued that Qantas has 'used COVID as a cover to prosecute [a long-held] industrial relations agenda', and has taken actions against workers as a core part of the company's 'response to dealing with the crisis'.
Inquiry participants were also unhappy with the level of consultation with aviation workers by major employers, including Qantas, prior to major outsourcing and downsizing decisions during the pandemic. For example, Ms Darlene Bailey submitted that when Qantas sold the catering part of its business, 'the workforce had very little say and were not consulted'.
Qantas outsourcing of ground handling operations: an update
Qantas' decision to outsource 2000 ground handling positions at 10 airports was the subject of a successful legal challenge by the TWU in the Federal Court of Australia. On 25 August 2021, Justice Michael Lee 'declared the decision to be unlawful'.
Federal Court Justice Lee ordered that Qantas had contravened section 340(1)(b) of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) (Fair Work Act) when it announced the decision to outsource the jobs because it took 'adverse action against':
directly-employed Qantas Airways Limited and QCatering Limited employees who were covered under the Transport Workers Agreement 2018, 'by prejudicially altering Qantas employees' positions'; and
employees of Qantas Ground Services who were covered by the Qantas Ground Services Pty Limited Ground Handling Agreement 2015, 'by altering QGS' position to its prejudice in relation to its contract for services with Qantas'.
Justice Lee did not accept Qantas' argument that, in deciding to outsource ground handling services, the decision-makers were 'solely concerned' with 'operational continuity'. Justice Lee was 'comfortably satisfied' that 'part of what distinctly mattered to [the decision-makers] was the prospect of' employees exercising their 'workplace rights', such as through industrial action.
Subsequent hearings commencing 13 December 2021 allowed the Federal Court to hear evidence on whether or not the workers could or should be reinstated to their roles. On Friday 17 December, the Federal Court rejected the TWU's application for reinstatement of the workers' jobs. In making his judgement, Justice Lee 'noted that workers had been "deprived" by Qantas of the satisfaction of continuing having a job, but that it would be impractical to reinstate them'. The Court will now 'decide whether workers get compensation and what amounts', with further hearings due to take place in 2022.
National Secretary of the TWU, Mr Michael Kaine, commented that court documents revealed that Qantas had prepared for the Federal Government to 'come out swinging' against the outsourcing decision, in light of the significant amount of government assistance provided to the airline through JobKeeper—assistance provided on the understanding that Qantas would keep workers engaged:
Of course, when the outsourcing decision was made Qantas, I guess, breathed a sigh of relief, because you could have heard a pin drop from the federal government. They said nothing and, to the extent that they did say something, they simply said, 'Well, this is the inevitable consequence of COVID.' It wasn't COVID at all; the Federal Court has blown the lid on that mythology. The reason those workers were outsourced was because they were a strong collective who had bargained for and achieved good terms and conditions and good job security, and who were ready, willing and able to bargain again in 2021—and, if necessary, exercise their industrial rights to take strike action in support.
Mr Kaine said Virgin provided a counter example, having 'decided to maintain at current levels the insourced portion of their workforce', and even to seek opportunities 'to further insource those very small portions that have been outsourced'.
Qantas long haul cabin crew Enterprise Bargaining Agreement dispute
The Qantas corporate website says:
From assisting Australians in times of natural disaster to providing an international platform to showcase the best our country has to offer, the Qantas Group continues to make a significant social and economic contribution.
This tradition continued as Australia dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic. Qantas operated over 100 international repatriation flights on behalf of the Federal Government to bring Australians home from various hotspots, including Wuhan. These flights were flown by crew who volunteered for these missions.
Shortly after this ‘significant social and economic contribution’ made by Qantas’ international cabin crew, on 20 January 2022, Qantas International applied to the Fair Work Commission to terminate its Long Haul Cabin Crew Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA), the industrial instrument which sets those workers’ pay and conditions.
According to Qantas, the application was lodged 'as a last resort to change restrictive and outdated rostering processes', after negotiations with the FAAA broke down.
Ms O'Toole described the process when the FAAA appeared before the committee in March 2022. She said flight crew were brought back into the workplace in December 2021, and, 'within the first few weeks … were asked to vote on a new enterprise agreement which would drastically reduce the conditions of many'. Ms O'Toole said the negotiations were different to previous rounds, with the union feeling sidelined and its suggested alternatives 'largely dismissed out of hand by the company'.
According to the FAAA, the new EBA 'took out legacy conditions that had been built over the previous 40 years', introduced 'a new 28-day rostering system', and increased 'stand-by rostering, or being on call—a week of stand-by for 12 out of 13 weeks':
This new system had the potential to disrupt a massive proportion of employees' lives, providing little to no work-life balance. Certainly it would make it almost impossible to have any certainty for any plans. The majority of crew are female and a significant proportion, 70 per cent, have carer's responsibilities. There is no doubt that our members will struggle doing one week in every four of stand-by and not having stability in their lives. However, when we raised these concerns they were ignored.
The ACTU argued that, if the enterprise agreement is terminated, and flight attendants are 'forced back to the relevant award', some flight attendants who are currently on a base rate of pay of $73 700, 'would come down to $45 864 … a $27 836 pay cut'.
Representatives from Qantas said the company's decision to go the Fair Work Commission and seek to have the EBA terminated was only taken after 'intensive engagement with the FAAA … ended in a deadlock'. Group Executive of Corporate Affairs, Mr Andrew McGinnes, said the company needs to change the EBA so its international business can 'respond quickly to a market that's going through a very complicated restart'. He also said the proposal Qantas 'put on the table' included a wage increase of 'six per cent over the term of that agreement'.
Qantas was asked to respond to the fact that its proposal provides a two-year wage freeze, followed by two per cent annual pay rises—which, being below inflation rates, represents a real wage cut every year for four years. Mr McGinnes said the 'pay freeze, and the two per cent wages policy beyond that, applies organisation wide'.
When asked to vote on the new EBA, over 97 per cent of staff voted against it. The FAAA conducted a survey of members after the vote, asking 'why they voted no':
91 per cent were concerned about work-life balance;
85 per cent were concerned 'that they could not manage fatigue';
74 per cent were concerned 'about safety in their workplace';
80 per cent were concerned 'that fatigue would impact on their ability to respond in an emergency'; and
85 per cent were concerned that 'they would not be able to plan their lives'.
Three weeks after the vote, Qantas applied to terminate the EBA instead of continuing the bargaining process. Ms O'Neil said the ability of employers to apply to terminate enterprise bargaining agreements 'during negotiations' represents a 'shocking development in the law', and an 'erosion of bargaining power for working people'. She said employing the 'tactic' has 'two effects', potentially throwing the workforce 'back onto the award … with huge pay cuts', and secondly:
… even just the possibility of termination strengthens the negotiating power of employers in a way that is completely unbalanced. It has a chilling effect on workers banding together to bargain for better wages and conditions. It is a blunt instrument—a threat, designed completely to ensure that workers capitulate to proposals put by companies that they are not in genuine agreement with.
Representatives from the Department of Infrastructure were asked if the minister has 'spoken with or met with Qantas about any issues relating to the international cabin crew enterprise bargaining agreement or termination application'. First Assistant Secretary of International Aviation, Technology and Services, Mr Richard Wood said: 'Not that we're aware of, no'. The Department then took the question on notice to ensure the response was accurate.
According to the ACTU, the provisions in Australia's industrial relations law that allow for employers to apply to terminate agreements were never 'intended' to be used this way, and 'no-one who cares about basic fairness should support this use of the law'. Ms O'Toole added that this use of the law:
… encourages an employer to avoid meaningful negotiations and just dictate whatever changes it likes. It gives companies a dangerous power over workers that drives down wages, conditions and safety standards.
Ms O'Toole said that, faced with being moved onto the award, the FAAA has 'fought very hard to get Qantas to come back to the table and conciliate', and has 'managed to get the original deal back on the table because anything is better than the modern award'. However, workers feel forced to accept the deal with 'a gun to their heads'.
Ms O'Toole noted the difference between the Qantas process and the process with Virgin. Despite its challenging financial position, Virgin was 'completely respectful' and upfront during EBA negotiations, reaching a 'mutually agreed position' with cabin crew. Ms O'Toole concluded:
We understand COVID. We understand the company lost money. We offered solutions to just about every problem they put forward, and all of them were ignored. When we look at where we were with Virgin: they listened, they were respectful and where we could get a mutually agreed position they accepted that. It was the polar opposite of what were the negotiations with Qantas.
Testimony from workers
Box 4.2 below includes testimony from current and former Qantas workers impacted by these decisions. Some workers have chosen to remain anonymous in order to protect their identities at work. However, all were properly identified at the time of providing evidence, and have consented to the use of evidence in this way. Emphasis has been added.
Box 4.2: Testimony from current and former Qantas workers
Brett—former ground services worker
'I have worked for Qantas in ground services in baggage and ramps for a little over 8½ years. I've also been a health and safety rep and a delegate for the Transport Workers Union.
Qantas love to talk a big story, the great public image of the spirit of Australia. The best example I can give of this is R U OK Day. Qantas would get on their own internal socials and external socials and preach about how much they supported R U OK Day and the mental health of its workers. Nothing could be further from the truth. We've been treated like old-model cars sold off by dodgy second-hand car salesmen. A number of staff are now suffering mental health issues as a direct result of the extremely poor and stressful times and situations they have been forced to deal with throughout this entire process. I personally now suffer from anxiety disorder which, when triggered, can bring on physical sickness. It's extremely embarrassing and very hard to cope with.
Another point I wish to raise is one that absolutely disgusts me to my core. It's ironic, it's laughable, that, on the very day that Qantas and its very expensive lawyers were in court to appeal the ruling that outsourcing was, in fact, deemed illegal, Qantas launched its own staff loyalty program. At this point, I'm going to borrow a quote from Greta Thunberg: 'How dare you!' How dare you, Qantas! You had loyal staff. You had hardworking, dedicated staff that missed Christmases, birthdays, Easters, moments with their children and in their children's lives, and you threw them to the wayside and called us collateral damage.' —Mr Brett Langford, Former TWU Delegate and former Qantas worker
Current Qantas flight crew worker stories—evidence taken and presented anonymously to protect their employment
'Approaching the first anniversary of the Qantas grounding, there seemed to be life. I'd heard that there was repatriation flying, and bubble flying to Auckland might be reopening.
Being immunocompromised I was extremely hesitant at putting my health on the line, but I had no choice. Dealing with ever-mounting debt and my mental and emotional wellbeing being completely in tatters—I actually had Beyond Blue and Lifeline on speed dial on my phone—I felt the only way forward was to return to flying and risk my health. This proved to be a very bad decision as I contracted COVID. … Since then, I have developed multiple ailments which now the medical community are calling 'long COVID'. I am burning through my sick leave at an alarming rate and will soon exhaust my sick leave and start having to use my annual leave just to pay the bills.
As a work group, flight attendants have been the hardest hit by this global pandemic. The rest of the Qantas returned to working from home or showing up at the office one day a week. It was something to keep them engaged and employed. The JobKeeper helped to a point, only to be replaced by aviation keeper, which ended far too soon. I now sit at home and wait for a call to come to work. … After crawling through the belly of hell, Qantas has now applied to terminate my EBA—an EBA that was, up to this point, negotiated in good faith by both parties. … I have never felt so destroyed in my … years. I have sought mental help for my depression and anxiety as well as my COVID ailments. I have worked for over  years for Qantas, only for Qantas then to turn around and stick my face in the mud…' —Qantas flight crew member of over 30 years (emphasis added)
'I have been with Qantas for a bit over 18 years, [xx] of which have been with international cabin crew. … I'm under what's called Qantas Cabin Crew Australia, which is a lesser contract, for lack of a better word. …
Basically, when COVID happened two years ago, the rug was pulled out from under us. You wouldn't believe the things I've had to do to survive during COVID. I was working between three and four casual jobs because it was impossible to get full-time work anywhere. There were so many Qantas people looking for jobs. … It took me six months to get a job. JobKeeper was very helpful; I'm appreciative for that and for the international readiness payment that continued. But it wasn't enough to cover my bills. I have multiple loans … and I have over $100,000 of debt for my flight training that I had to pay for, which I couldn't. I had to put all the loans on hold, so my interest went up, and my costs were going up. I had to draw down $20,000 on my super. … I was going backwards again, cutting into my savings. It was like that for two years. I've been run ragged; I'm shattered; I've had no time to do anything but just survive, holding out hope that the pandemic would end.
Then I finally got back to Qantas, and they started the EBA negotiations—I use that term extremely loosely. Basically, the company just held the EBA out in front of us and said: 'This is it; take it, or leave it. That's it.' … 97 per cent of us voted no. A couple of weeks later, they ran straight to the Fair Work Commission and applied to cancel it and I thought, 'What's the point of having a vote'?
If they cancel [the EBA and go to the award], I'm done. I don't know anything but aviation. I've been in aviation since 1998, since before I finished school. It's all l know. It's all I'm good at. Many of my crew are in the same position. … I feel like I'm worthless. I feel like a cost index on a spreadsheet. We're treated like a dispensable asset. Something needs to change with the laws. Enough's enough.' —Qantas flight crew member, with Qantas over 18 years (emphasis added)
'For $23 an hour I might as well go and work at Bunnings … We don't want to leave the industry. We love the industry. We just want to be paid a fair working wage with conditions that are fair to everyone. We don't want to take the company for a ride, but we want to have a fair chance, have a fair working wage and fair working conditions and be recognised for the contributions we make and the sacrifices we make by volunteering to go overseas for days and weeks on end and not see family and miss friends' and family's birthdays and deaths in the family.' —Qantas flight crew member, with Qantas over 18 years
A Safe and Secure Skies Commission
The ACTU, the ASU and the TWU all called for the establishment of a Safe and Secure Skies Commission. Mr Kaine said the aviation sector needs 'a standing tribunal or commission that can look at aviation and make sure that standards are kept and that each player in the aviation market is paying its fair share and pulling its own weight'.
Unions proposed that the Commission be given the ability to:
Make binding and enforceable orders to ensure that there are appropriate standards (including safety) for all participants in the aviation supply chain which will ensure that competition is underpinned by a level playing field aimed at creating jobs and a sustainable and viable aviation sector;
Provide for enforceable terms and conditions for all aviation workers based on the principle of 'same job, same pay' that maximises secure and direct hire jobs and ensures that any tenders do not undercut existing terms and conditions of workers;
Resolve any dispute on a single or industry basis within the supply chain;
Make any orders on any supply chain participant/s necessary to fulfil the aims of the SSSC; and
Inquire and make recommendations to the Australian Government with regards to any issues facing the sector including the use of significant purchasing power through procurement policy.
The TWU explained that a Safe and Secure Skies Commission is necessary to address the fundamental market imbalances apparent in aviation. It submitted that:
Rather than simply react to each inevitable crisis as it comes, and particularly if Government ownership is not going to be pursued, there needs to be an independent body in place capable of intervening in the market to correct the fundamental power imbalances within the industry and better manage the volatile aviation cycle.
Future workforce supply issues
Pre-COVID have suggested increased demand for aviation services, with global passenger numbers set to double to 8.2 billion by 2037, and a corresponding pressure for skilled workers. With dwindling numbers of new workers entering the sector at this point in time, the aviation workforce is lagging demand, and Australia is facing a growing shortage of aviation workers. Meanwhile, unprecedented demand for aviation workers is growing across the Asia Pacific region.
The 2018 Expert Panel Report on Aviation Skills and Training identified a number of issues contributing to the current situation, many of which were echoed by inquiry participants. These included:
the lack of a strong policy direction and coordination;
the level and availability of student loans;
visa and eligibility requirements for temporary migration of skilled overseas personnel;
the age profile of the aviation workforce;
cost barriers to entry; and
lack of availability of experienced flight instructors.
In 2019, the Australian Industry and Skills Committee reported a shortage of licensed maintenance engineers, pilots, flight instructors and safety personnel. Industry stakeholders attributed these shortages to the cost and time to achieve the required qualification, greater competition for skilled labour, an ageing workforce and low remuneration.
Boeing reiterated these concerns in its Pilot and Technician Outlook 2021-2039. It predicted that global demand for additional aviation workers will increase over the next 20 years, with 612 000 new pilots, 626 000 new maintenance technicians and 886 000 new cabin crew members needed to fly and maintain the global commercial fleet.
Evidence before the committee similarly emphasised the issue of skills shortages as a global problem. Ms Margy Osmond, CEO of the Tourism and Transport Forum, said:
It's not just pilots within our sector, to be honest. In a wider sense, it's a huge range of other skills within the industry that are in amazingly short supply just about everywhere in the world. That's why it's going to add such complexity to rebuilding the industry, because it's not going to be as simple as just saying, 'Well, we'll get them from other countries.
As noted in the committee's interim report, employers in the aviation sector took a number of different actions in response to COVID‑19. Major employers, such as airlines, stood down or laid off thousands of workers while others suffered large job losses.
Ms Debbie Paylor, General Manager of the Industry Skills Advisory Council Northern Territory, summed up the situation:
From the front line—the major airlines—we're seeing some early retirement. We're seeing workforce being stood down and retrenched. Many in that workforce may not return. The long-term effects of that is that it's three to four years to retrain staff. In the aviation sector, that's longer. There's a series of hoops that they need to jump through before they become the full, licensed aircraft maintenance engineers. So, whilst training starts at Cert II and then there's initial industry uptake, in order to become that fully experienced workforce, that's a journey of seven to eight years. That's the impact we're going to feel.
Factors affecting workforce supply
Submitters identified a number of factors affecting workforce supply, with some calling for the Australian Government to introduce specific strategies to provide assistance to students and employers. This evidence is discussed below.
Competition for skilled workers
As air travel increases, Australian airlines and airports are facing greater competition for skilled labour. The committee heard that qualified pilots and engineers are already in great demand and inquiry participants highlighted that there is significant competition for relevant skills, not only within aviation, but across many other sectors. In addition, the Australian Federation of Air Pilots (AFAP) informed the committee that many countries are raising pilot wages to attract foreign-trained talent to support their growth; for example, Australian pilots are being targeted by airlines in the United States, offering large sign-on bonuses and retention payments.
Captain Louise Pole, President of the AFAP, added that:
Pilots will travel all round the world to gain employment, and, as you said, if the market shifts significantly, the wages on offer will be very high in other parts of the world to try to attract people to, let's say, less desirable locations to live and work. They offer up these types of incentives for people to go. That will exacerbate our problem in Australia of not having current pilots to be able to work once the industry ramps up again.
In 2018, the Expert Panel on Aviation Skills & Training in Australia raised similar concerns that internationally-based airlines will increasingly look to Australia as a source of highly qualified and experienced airline pilots, flight instructors and licenced maintenance engineers which will further exacerbate the present shortages of aviation professionals in Australia.
Several submitters, including Professionals Australia and the AIPA, recognised that 'the aviation sector is struggling to provide market competitive employment conditions'.
Barriers to entry
In addition, the committee heard that securing a pipeline of new entrants has been a key challenge for the aviation sector due to barriers to entry, including the cost of training and the relative insecurity of many of the jobs, especially ground handling roles.
Training is particularly expensive in the aviation sector. Evidence regarding the cost of relevant pilot and engineering training was explored in the committee's interim report. The AFAP explained that it is not uncommon for employers to require pilots to enter training bonds or incur personal debts in order to undertake training. It argued that:
Aviation is a form of national infrastructure and the problems with the pilot licensing ruleset, and associated funding norms, will have a material effect on aviation's ability to recover from the economic trench that the pandemic has kicked it into.
Mr Glenn Rutherford, Member of the Australian Aviation Ground Handling Industry Alliance, was concerned that ground handling, in particular, 'is a very unattractive sector to work in right now' due to insecure working conditions.
The need for further research
A number of inquiry participants called for the Australian Government to investigate future workforce demand in Australia, along with the capacity of the Australian training and certification systems to meet expected increases in demand resulting from the pandemic recovery.
The committee agrees with the Australian Federation of Air Pilots, that the COVID-19 crisis 'has been a driver of disruption', and has:
… laid bare the true state of a fragile and unstable aviation sector susceptible to the excesses of poor corporate practices and insufficient government‑based protections and directions.
The pandemic has demonstrated the volatility of the aviation sector and its vulnerability to external shocks. However, the committee also agrees with the AFAP that some of 'disproportionate damage' to the aviation sector 'was largely avoidable'.
Choices made by Qantas have negatively impacted workers and left Australian aviation weaker, less safe, and less sustainable. This year, Qantas plummeted from its status as the world’s safest airline down to seventh for the first time since 2013, in the aftermath of its decision to illegally terminate and outsource its entire ground crew workforce.
What were once reasonably‑paid, secure jobs have increasingly been replaced by low-paid and insecure jobs filled increasingly by less experienced workers. Workers have been made to feel undervalued or dispensable, and many of those not outsourced have left the sector, with the trauma still impacting their mental and physical health, their financial security, and their morale.
The committee does not accept the argument that illegally outsourcing 2000 ground handling workers, and forcing flight crew to accept a new EBA by threatening to revert to the award, were 'hard choices' Qantas had to make to survive the pandemic. Other airlines had to make hard choices too, but did not take these kinds of actions; other airlines did not choose to break trust with their workers, or abandon the fair and balanced bargaining processes that have helped create a strong and healthy aviation sector over many decades.
As Justice Lee stated when explaining that Qantas had broken the law when it outsourced the workers, the committee believes Qantas made these choices to avoid employees exercising their workplace rights, or to curtail the bargaining process so it could progress its agenda unheeded.
The actions of Qantas during the pandemic demonstrate the need for an industry 'watchdog'; an independent body with the power to make and enforce binding standards on the aviation sector, including supply chain participants.
There is merit in the idea of a Safe and Secure Skies Commission, as proposed by the TWU, ACTU and the ASU. We note that the Senate Select Committee on Job Security collected evidence from Qantas, workers, unions and ground handling contractors, including Swissport, and made a number of observations and recommendations in relation to these issues.
There is a perverse situation at Qantas where in good times, the Qantas Board makes Mr Joyce the highest paid CEO in Australia, and the highest paid airline CEO in the world. In the four years before the pandemic, Qantas also engaged in more share buybacks than any other ASX 200 company.
While rivers of gold flow to Mr Joyce and Qantas’ major shareholders in good times, during COVID-19 Qantas has viciously and illegally slashed pay and conditions from its ground and cabin crew, even while being the single largest recipient of public bailout funds in Australia.
Mr Joyce and the Qantas management cannot continue to be allowed to have their cake and eat it too. It is essential that restrictions are placed on future public bailouts to Qantas and others, to counterbalance extravagant and self-indulgent corporate malfeasance.
The committee supports Recommendations 16 and 17 from the Senate Select Committee on Job Security's Third interim report: labour hire and contracting.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government adopts Recommendations 16 and 17 from the Senate Select Committee on Job Security's Third interim report: labour hire and contracting:
The committee recognises the merit of an independent body with the power to make and enforce binding standards on aviation supply chain participants, including airports and their central role. Those standards include 'same job, same pay' for outsourced and labour hire workers performing functions directly connected to aviation operations, job security protections, and fair procurement standards. The committee recommends the Australian Government consults with industry participants, including unions, employers, and other stakeholders on the development of this body.
The committee recommends the Australian Government imposes obligations upon companies in receipt of future public bailouts, which prioritise job security and guarantee that companies cannot follow Qantas' lead, and exploit emergencies to engage in illegal workforce restructuring.
The aviation sector's requirement for a skilled and diverse workforce is well established and the committee believes that developing workforce capability and career paths is essential to meet the rising skills shortfall.
The Australian Government plays an important role in assisting the aviation sector to meet future demand for skilled labour.
Australia's aviation sector is facing a two-fold dilemma caused by a lack of new entrants to the sector, and the loss of experienced workers to retirement, or into more secure sectors. This loss is being exacerbated by the cost barriers faced by individuals and businesses wanting to gain qualifications and certifications in the sector—an issue raised by numerous inquiry participants.
The possibilities COVID-19 offers for progressive reform should not be ignored. In order to turn the impending shortfall of skilled aviation workers into an industry development and export opportunity, industry and government need to be engaged in a conversation. Most immediately, strategies are required for:
rebuilding sufficient domestic capacity to ensure Australian airlines can handle increasing air travel;
keeping the present generation of pilots, licensed aircraft maintenance engineers, ground handlers and flight crew productively-employed, with their skills current, until market demand makes a full recovery; and
reforming and investing in the aviation training system to ensure that a new generation of properly-qualified engineers and pilots will be available to replace the retiring workforce.
This work cannot be done without first identifying the sector's workforce development challenges and priority skills needs, as well as better understanding the impacts of job insecurity on attracting and retaining a skilled aviation workforce for the future.
This inquiry has provided an opportunity to conduct a high-level examination of the key issues contributing to the current shortage of aviation workers in Australia. Due to the limited time, and wide scope of the terms of reference, this is not intended to be an exhaustive report.
The committee recognises that more detailed work is required—by both industry and government—to identify future solutions to reduce barriers to entry, increase job security, make the sector more attractive to emerging professionals, and increase retention of skilled aviation workers.
The committee was surprised that the Aviation Recovery Framework released in December 2021 made no attempt to address these substantial issues facing the existing aviation workforce.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government urgently works with industry, unions professional associations, and aviation sector experts, to prepare a comprehensive white paper on the future of the aviation sector post-pandemic, including aviation workforce issues such as:
the ongoing impacts of job insecurity, wage decline and the erosion of safe work conditions on the aviation workforce, in the context of the pandemic and the sector's recovery;
measures to lift wages, conditions and standards at airlines and airports around Australia, including aviation workers performing the same job are entitled to the same pay, and holding airlines and others at the top of aviation supply chains responsible for standards throughout the chain;
options for lifting workforce supply to support the projected growth in aviation activity; and
approaches to ensuring that workforce growth results in the creation of a sustainable, highly‑skilled and secure workforce for the long-term.
Outcomes from the white paper process should inform a national plan for investing in aviation sector workforce retention, training and capacity building to ensure sustainability over the medium and long-term.
Evidence responding to specific government support measures that were introduced during the pandemic and designed to maintain aviation workforce capability is discussed in Chapter 5.