The serious side to Jetstar telling pilots to “toughen up princesses”

With much objection from Qantas Group chief executive Alan Joyce, Senator Nick Xenophon tabled at this morning’s Senate inquiry into pilot training a letter from a Jetstar line pilot telling his approximately twenty fellow Perth-based pilots that if they were experiencing fatigue to “toughen up princesses!” because “You aren’t fatigued, you are tired and can’t be bothered going to work.”

There are statements to be made about morale and management levels, including the airline executives saying that despite a Senator getting a hold of the e-mail, they had not seen it before, and hence Joyce not wanting the company’s representatives to respond to material they were unfamiliar with. (After the hearing Jetstar scheduled an “urgent” press conference about matters raised.)

But the underlying and pressing issues are safety and fatigue management.

It was fair for Joyce in the hearing to mention that Jetstar and Qantas crews flying to Tokyo rest in Osaka and Hong Kong, respectively, rather than risk fatigue caused by tremors in Tokyo. Indeed, Joyce says, Jetstar was the first Qantas Group carrier to make the decision to have Tokyo-bound crews rest elsewhere. But fatigue management needs to be evaluated on all operations and the Jetstar pilot’s letter touches on an increasingly popular operation, yet lacking sufficient oversight, for LCCs: the so-called back of the clock operations, which are flying multiple sectors between the night and morning.

Such sectors raise flags for fatigue and managing it. The Jetstar pilot writes of such flights: “I hate the shift and I definitely don’t operate to my normal standard. I am tried throughout the shift, feel terrible…”

But the pilot says he “would not call it fatigued”.

The difference between being fatigued and the pilot’s description is lost on me and the dictionary, if I may speak for it. The pilot has acknowledged he feels tired, even terrible, and that he has reduced effectiveness from his normal standard.

That last point is worth dwelling on considering today’s hearing started with the Senators talking to Joyce about Monday night’s QF32 documentary, which rightfully praised that flight’s crew. Joyce commented the documentary was a “fantastic piece”. One can imagine the comments the documentary, Senators, and Joyce might have if QF32′s pilots were not operating at their normal standard and the accident turned out very differently.

Curiously, the pilot defends Jetstar, saying “JQ rosters the required rest”. Yet the required rest is not enough for the pilot by his own account. Nor was it enough for Jetstar chief executive Bruce Buchannan who told the Senators the carrier’s Darwin-Singapore-Darwin service will now have pilots spend a night in Singapore instead of flying directly back to Australia. There were reports Jetstar changed this as a result of the hearing. Buchannan says that is not the case and the airline decided to make the change last month.

The pilot also raises that when it came to fatigue management, there was little management of it. “By trial and error I have worked out what works for me so I can manage this shift,” he writes.

At the crux of the debate is airline management wanting to maximise aircraft and crew without breaking limits, a pressure even greater with a low-cost airline like Jetstar. The pilot acknowledges this at the start, justifying the BOC “horror shift”  because “aeroplanes don’t make money sitting on the tarmac, they need to keep flying.” The pilot even raises if the Perth base could not make BOC flights work, the base may be scaled back.

Can this Senate inquiry bring change, not just to individual actions but to culture? It is apparent the Senators are concerned about many facets about aviation safety but have not been able to prioritize them. While the the publication of this letter does not cast the Qantas Group in a positive light, it may be one action that brings this increasingly important matter of safety and fatigue to the forefront and forces change.

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