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Feb 5, 2012

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The possibility that Jetstar has regularly broken Australian immigration laws by bringing in foreign flight attendants on long daily rosters to work domestic flights is one of the key issues before a resumed Senate committee hearing in Canberra this Monday morning.

The committee met twice last November to consider two bills, one concerning flight crew arrangements, and the other, the enforcement of the intent of the original Qantas Sale Act of 1992.

It has set aside all of this Monday morning to discuss issues arising from those hearings, and take any fresh submissions, from the Qantas group CEO, Alan Joyce, and the Jetstar group CEO, Bruce Buchanan, and I have read various other documents from interested parties that the committee will undoubtedly consider and place on the public record as it sees fit, or not.

In lay terms, some very serious issues have arisen in these hearings.

One of them concerns the clear potential for the Qantas group, if it wishes, to circumvent the Qantas Sale Act of 1992 which set up the transformation of the carrier into a listed company on the ASX in 1995, and divert its investment into subsidiaries, controlled or otherwise, based offshore, as has been the case with its Jetstar franchises in Singapore and Vietnam, and the Jetstar Japan entity which should begin services this year.

Another concern is that of foreign flight crews employed at lower wages under arguably repressive labor contracts, working an international Jetstar flight into Australia at the start of a very long roster, then working Jetstar flights performing domestic flights within Australia, and then working a departing international Jetstar flight, back to their home base.

This appears to be in breach of Australian immigration laws, and imports into a purely domestic service environment, air crew entrusted with safety functions who are not trained to Australian standards, and who are not,  it seems, subject to safety regulation enforcement by CASA, and may be too exhausted to properly discharge their duties in an emergency.

These precedents, as such, may in due course apply also to pilots. In fact Jetstar last year was talking up rotating rosters of pilots, all employed to the professional standards and labor laws of their countries of domicile, being moved around its Australian and offshore franchises as seasonal demand required.

The issues are very difficult. If I understand the position of the Australian and International Pilots Association correctly, it concedes that Qantas should take up opportunities to expand in Asia with franchises like Jetstar if its sees fit, but not use those franchises to replace purely domestic crews within Australia for the purposes of saving money, including the superannuation levy, or employee taxes collected by the ATO, or to undermine the standards and conditions of Australian air crews.

The issues before the Senate also raise the consumer expectation that when a jet is painted as a Qantas jet, with similar or identical logos, or code shared by Qantas as being a Qantas quality carrier, the training, and the recurrent standards of those employed to deliver them should be those of this country, carried out under Australian safety regulations and oversight.

These are matters which have a wider significance to the national economy than air transport, given suggestions in other quarters of free trade zones for mines, and perhaps manufacturing, in which the cheaper labor is flown into and out of the country.

In context, Australia faces a determined effort to harmonise its flight standards, if necessarily downwards, to those of the rest of the world, rendering them as world’s best practice, when in some cases, such as the removal of special life rafts from Lord Howe Island flights, we achieve this at a calculated sacrifice of public safety, and roll the dice that no-one will drown as a direct consequence of administrative bastardry and executive weakness.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that there is change resistance to new markets for mass transport by low cost carriers,  or the changes in the role of pilots in terms of way aircraft are flown and flying skills are acquired.

These are minefields in terms of various management and labor agendas, and the benefits and risks for public safety. This is a very demanding, and highly technical senate investigation, but the two bills before the committee, would, if passed, prevent the gutting of Australian aviation by peripheral entities set up in Asia with no gains in terms of safety that have yet been advanced by Qantas.

And that surely is one of the questions for Mr Joyce and Mr Buchanan. What safety dividends will their plans bring to Australian travellers?

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Nov 24, 2011

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The Qantas long haul pilots have been compelled to stop voicing their opinion about the off-shoring of the airline through a campaign of in-flight announcements, but that doesn’t extend to suppressing their engaging in public opinion polling, such as one released this morning showing strong support for a strengthening of the 1992 Qantas Sale Act.

The survey, conducted by Your Source polled 1045 respondents, could make the political parties recognise the extent of public concerns about the current direction of Qantas.

Rather than extract from the media statement by AIPA, the long haul Qantas pilots union, the actual poll questions and responses are reprinted in the belief that only if people see the questions can they better form an opinion as to whether the poll was fairly structured.

National polling regarding the Qantas Sale Act

Question: Which option best sums up your view about the future of Qantas? (% response rounded)

a) Qantas is a fully private company and the CEO and management should be allowed to direct it as they see fit: 24
b) Qantas is a private company, but because it has a special role to play in Australia the government should enforce certain restrictions on management to ensure it acts broadly in the national interest: 51
c) Qantas should not be a private company at all and the government should move to buy it back: 17
d) Don’t care: 8

Question: When Qantas was privatised in 1992, laws known as the ‘Qantas Sale Act’ were introduced to ensure international services remained Australia-based and Australia-focused. However, it has now been shown that the Qantas Sale Act does not legally prevent Qantas management from replacing Australian operations with foreign subsidiaries. Do you think the current government should now move to strengthen the Qantas Sale Act?  (%response rounded)

a) Yes, the government should move to strengthen the Qantas Sale Act: 66
b) No, the government should leave the Qantas Sale Act alone:  19
c) Don’t care either way : 15

National polling conducted by Your Source, commissioned by the Australian and International Pilots Association.

n=1045

Poll conducted over a five-day period from 9 November, 2011 to 13 November 2011
Poll respondents demographically controlled in-line with the latest national ABS data. (Controlled for gender, state, income, employment status and education level.)

Disclosure: My view is that the proposed amendments to the Qantas Sale Act are unworkable or severely flawed by the likelihood of unintended consequences and the inability of Australia to enforce some of the proposed interventions on other countries. But this is about fullness in reporting, not my personal views.

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Nov 5, 2011

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The alarming failure rate of Rolls-Royce RB211 engines fitted to most Qantas 747-400s was raised at yesterday’s Senate committee hearings into the Qantas Still Call Australia Home bill which has been sponsored by Greens leader Senator Bob Brown and the independent Senator Nick Xenophon.

According to the data I’ve seen only 23 out of the 92 such engines in the Qantas inventory have been modified to prevent a compressor failure mode identified by the engine maker and safety bodies after a series of incidents, including some uncontained failures, were reported by airlines, including freight operators.

Of those modified engines, only 17 are actually on the wings of Qantas 744s at least up until recently. Qantas uses these jets across some very exposed oceanic routes to the US and between Sydney and Johannesburg, on flights that often cross sub-Antarctic latitudes sufficiently far south for iceberg sightings to be relatively common.

In his appearance at the committee hearings yesterday Steve Purvinas the federal secretary of the ALAEA, the licensed aircraft engineers union, drew attention to the closure in 2009 of the specialised Qantas RB 211 engine shop at its Sydney Jet Base and the outsourcing of that work to a Rolls-Royce engine centre in Hong Kong.

This coincided with sharp rises in the incidents involving such engines, and I should point out something that Purvinas might not have emphasised, which is that these failures have occurred in Cathay Pacific and British Airways flights as well as those of Qantas.

The RB211 is now the subject of a modification program to replace the troublesome components in these engines, but it is not considered by the authorities to be urgent, and having closed its own specialised centre, Qantas is now in the queue waiting for Rolls-Royce to perform this highly desirable modification.

Qantas has lost control over yet another function which is important to the safety of flight, as well as something that helped put it ahead of other airlines in maintenance excellence, and given the exposure of RB211 powered 747s to the South Africa route in particular, it could lose a lot more.

In the figures I have been shown, there was one serious failure in a Qantas RB211 engine in 2008, and in 2009 there two, one before and one after the transfer of their heavy maintenance to Hong Kong.

In 2010 there were four failures, including one notably severe incident to a flight leaving San Francisco for Sydney. In this year so far there have been five such RB211 incidents, the most recent being to a Qantas flight after departure from Bangkok last month, and the most recent example affecting another airline being to a Cathay Pacific flight after departing Paris, also in October.

As I understand it CASA isn’t taking any action to curb the risks this engine poses to Qantas flights because there is no international directive that requires it to. I don’t think this is good enough. CASA has the power to put safety excellence above safety conformity, as Qantas should have when it took the decision to lose control of something critical to its safety record and safe operations.

This is something quite distinct from the Qantas Still Call Australia Home bill, which to be blunt, is so seriously flawed if well intentioned that it is surprising it made it to the committee stage , even though the hearings have provided an opportunity to examine other pressing issues concerning safety, industrial equity and consumer affairs in Qantas and Jetstar.

 

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Apr 25, 2010

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The world's fastest passenger trains, in Wuhan, photo courtesy Xinhau
The world's fastest passenger trains, in Wuhan, photo courtesy Xinhau

In political terms, Senator Bob Brown’s call for a new study on a VFT or very fast train between Melbourne-Canberra-Sydney risks provoking some fierce green negativity.

However it probably says something about the chances for that issue getting an airing that since Friday when he launched the proposal it has vanished into media invisibility, thanks no doubt to inspired or unlucky timing as the case may be. The Melbourne Storm fraud, the ANZAC holiday weekend, and the continued leaking of the Henry Taxation Review  all killed the VFT story in its tracks, so to speak.

Two Eurostars, the fastest international trains, in London  before departing to Paris and Brussels
Two Eurostars, the fastest international trains, in London before departing to Paris and Brussels

But what will the rank-and-file Greens do to the notion? If windmills can cause so much opposition among greens to what in some circumstances can be a useful boost to renewable energy because of the apparently real threats they pose to bird life…and the tranquil views sought by so many tree changers…what exactly are they going to say about 320 kmh trains rocketing through the parrot rich woods and fields of the southern highlands?

Or being powered by electricity generated by fossil carbon releasing coal fired power stations? Railway permanent ways do not just scar the countryside, and areas of natural beauty, but make cuttings that involve the collapsing of hillsides that are of significant durability on a geological time scale, and every bit as invasive as major highway construction. And they create a noise problem as long as the route.

Eurostar in an English cutting, made for the new high speed line
Eurostar in an English cutting, made for the new high speed line

In Europe the environmental impact of high speed railways is diluted by the extensive changes historically made to the landscape by higher population densities, and by layers of development and industrialisation. This is not the case in Australia, even in the south-eastern corner. We live in a place that is emptier and quieter than any other economically developed nation. We generate the vastly greater proportion of our electricity by burning coal and liberating fossil carbon. In France however the trains run on electricity which comes from turbines turned by steam superheated by nuclear fission, which is achieved by ‘managing’ the relative proximity of rods of enriched uranium, or in some cases plutonium. It’s clean, but scary power.

Thus understanding the nevertheless impressive case for railway expansion, whether it is to be very fast, or for rather less money, faster than before, becomes a process of understanding the desperately pressing matter of reducing the release of fossil sourced carbon. We can’t resolve the issues of radically improving rail infrastructure without dealing with the sources of the power it requires.

Rail transport is like fossil carbon reduction, an issue a coal dependant society continues to find all too hard to do anything about. This is different to the situation in air transport, where the pursuit of non fossil carbon releasing fuel substitutes is driven by sensitivity to rising oil prices rather than any other factor, contrary to what the airlines would have us believe.

(The ultimate goal of the airline industry, which is algal grown octanes with zero impact on food crop production, is perhaps two to three decades away from realisation, but it would have obvious benefits in terms of replacing fossil carbon releasing fuels in shipping and surface transport and perhaps even power generation.)

Brown referred to a Melbourne-Canberra-Sydney route. Canberra is a big complication to a VFT in that it involves engaging on a large scale one of the natural enemies of fast rail in general, which is complex hilly terrain.

The fastest passenger railway route on earth, the Wuhan-Guangzhou line, which began services in December 2009, is 922 kilometres long between the major two stations, or coincidentally, very similar to the likely length of an all new high speed line between Sydney and Melbourne that avoids the worst of the natural obstacles caused by high country around and to the south of Canberra.

The Wuhan-Guangzhou link took 4.5 years years to build, including 177 kilometres of twin track tunnelling. The non-stop service between the two large cities is currently scheduled at 2 hours 57 minutes at an average speed of 313 kmh in trains that reach a top speed of 350 kmh, and have in a trial run exceeded 390 kmh.

However most of the scheduling involves services stopping at some or all of the 12 major centres between Wuhan and Guangzhou as those intermediate express markets are considered essential to the overall viability of the state owned line.

The metal wheel on metal rail technology China is using is now going into a speed range which had previously been seen as belonging exclusively to magnetic levitation or maglev systems, but they are currently in eclipse as that contact free technology has failed to scale up into a workable proposition, in China where a short haul maglev link exists between Pudong Airport and Shanghai, or anywhere else.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xwTHZ80B14[/youtube]

A photo gallery of what is now the fastest passenger train route on earth is contained in the YouTube above. The one below is a video which mostly illustrates the rail experience.

Both deserve a close study for what they have to say about fast rail, and China.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_LnmxJVPmZc&feature=related[/youtube]