Pilot unions in Australia have united in their opposition to a move by Qantas to bring in overseas pilots and instructors amid claims of a pilot shortage.
The airline successfully lobbied the Australian government to let it bring in 76 overseas pilots and instructors on four-year visas after the carrier found it difficult to recruit flight crew on the previous two-year terms.
The move comes as smaller airlines have complained they are losing pilots to their bigger rivals as robust growth in worldwide air travel puts pressure on training organizations to keep up.
Australia’s biggest independent regional airline, Regional Express (Rex), recently accused Qantas and Virgin Blue of “rapacious plundering” of its pilot pool as it struggled to cope with increased global demand for aircrew.
Qantas regional offshoot QantasLink and smaller operators such as AirNorth and Australia’s iconic Royal Flying Doctor Service have all been hit by increased competition for pilots.
But pilot unions say the problem is one of the industry’s own making.
“If there is a real pilot shortage of Australian applicants, and AIPA has serious doubts, it has come about because the aviation employers have sat on their hands and done nothing to address the impending supply-side problem,’’ Australian and International Pilots Association president Murray Butt said in a statement Wednesday.
“Collectively, they have made aviation a relatively unattractive career.”
AIPA believes the Qantas move to bring in overseas pilots is a smoke screen to keep pilot salaries low.
Butt said AIPA considered the Australian government’s visa move to an abuse of process “ designed to substitute Commonwealth benefits as inducements to employ people on terms and conditions that apparently have otherwise proved to be unattractive and inadequate to Australian pilots”
He called on the Department of Home Affairs to produce the evidence used to assess “the purported skill shortage” and questioned the quality of pilots Qantas would recruit at the rates it was offering.,
“Qantas is offering pilot recruits less than the average rates being paid to bus drivers in Sydney and expecting them to perform highly skilled work at unacceptably low rates of pay,” he said.
The sentiments were echoed an earlier statement by the Australian Federation of Air Pilots.
AFAP president David Booth disputed there was a pilot shortage in Australia but rather a “bottleneck in the pilot training pipeline’.
“This decision is a slap in the face to hundreds of qualified young Australian pilots who are ready, willing and able to take up pilot positions in the Qantas Group,’’ he said.
“It is very disappointing that the government has seen fit to reward Qantas for their poor planning with this band-aid solution.’’
Booth said the aviation industry had always been cyclical and Qantas had been claiming as recently as 2015 that it had too many pilots.
He said the airline halted recruitment into Qantas mainline between 2009 and 2016 “despite forecast pilot retirements and having numerous orders for new B787 aircraft in the pipeline”.
Qantas has shortlisted nine regional towns for a pilot academy it intends to open in 2019 to address the training pressures and provide it with a long-term source of flight crew.
The airline, which employs 3500 pilots, argues it is going through one of the biggest pilot training programs in its history as it brings in 14 new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners.
It says it has hired more than 600 new pilots in Australia since 2016 with another 350 due to be added by the end of calendar year 2018.
The agreement to bring in the foreign pilots, who will have to meet the same requirements and pass the same tests as existing pilots, will allow its QantasLink subsidiary to restore schedules adjusted to support pilot training needs, it says
“Our focus has always been to recruit Australian-based pilots and that hasn’t changed,” a spokesman said.
“This agreement allows us to temporarily bring in a limited number of simulator instructors and experienced pilots from overseas to support one of the biggest training programs we have done in our history.”