The prospect of the government banning foreign cabin crew on domestic flights, as reported in some outlets, would be a bold step--but if only it were true.
In reality the private bill Independent Senator for South Australia Nick Xenophon intends to introduce has a narrow remit. Xenophon, who chaired the Senate inquiry into pilot training and aviation safety, wants foreign-based cabin crew employed to work on Australian aircraft to have the same flight and duty time limitations as their Australian counterparts. It is an appropriate measure.
"This is a basic issue of fairness and safety," Xenophon said in a statement. "We shouldn't have an underclass of cabin crews flying around Australia on Australian carriers." Xenophon said foreign crew have no limitations in their contract on how many hours they could be expected to fly.
Jetstar chief executive Bruce Buchanan was asked at a March Senate hearing if foreign crew had different duty limitations than their local counterparts.
"There is a variety of different arrangements in place on the Australian domestic arrangements. Some of the international crew will align with some of the Australian international crew, but the domestic crew have different agreements and different time limitations and how they work in Australia," Buchanan replied.
Xenophon's bill follows a recently-aired local documentary on ABC Lateline that highlighted how Jetstar employs Thai cabin crew from a company Qantas owns 37% of yet gives lower conditions to and, in some (exceptional) instances, has cabin crew work 20-hour shifts. The long shifts raise questions over how safety proficient the crew could be in an emergency.
"In the event of an emergency, I believe passengers have a right to expect that their cabin crews are going to be alert enough to get the door open and the passengers out," Xenophon said.
The proposed bill would also apply to international airlines in which an Australian carrier has a stake of at least 20%, directly affecting Jetstar Asia--which flies Airbus A330s from Singapore to Melbourne--and any possible full-service east Asia-based subsidiary Qantas will announce on 24 August.
While Xenophon said he would "take up" the issue of the lower salaries paid to foreign crews, he stopped short of calling for legislation on the topic. Buchanan told the senate inquiry an "indicative" salary (likely including per diem and flight hours) for Jetstar's Singapore-based crew would range from $36,000-$46,000 while the "indicative" salary for Australian-based cabin crew was $50,000-$69,000.
Buchanan said at the hearing that Thai-based cabin crew have similar salaries as their Singapore colleagues while Vietnam-based salaries "are substantially less" but "commensurate with local market levels".
"At the end of the day, you have to be competitive in each of the local markets to recruit cabin crew and pilots," Buchanan said.
Xenophon's statement said the bill "follows revelations that Jetstar's Bangkok-based foreign crews regularly work on flights that travel from one Australian location to another, and that most passengers would believe are domestic flights."
That statement is in reference to foreign-based crew working "tag" domestic services on their aircraft between international sectors, such as A330 flight JQ35 that routes Sydney-Melbourne-Bali. Foreign crews work the Sydney-Melbourne sector.
However, Xenophon should know that practice is not a "revelation" as it was discussed, with little debate, at a hearing he attended on 31 March.