Canberra’s critical airport safety staff must be retained  

By David Smith MP

28 July 2020

The Morrison Government needs to urgently fund Airservices Australia's aviation firefighting services, after a worrying new report found some $23 billion worth of planes and airport infrastructure has been left unprotected.

University of Newcastle’s Centre of Full Employment and Equity's Rescue, firefighting and emergency response capacity at Australian airports during the COVID-19 pandemic report found Airservices established $16.2 billion worth of planes and more than $7 billion in airport assets and infrastructure has been left exposed, as Airservices scales back Aviation Rescue and Fire Fighting Services (ARFFS) in the wake of COVID-19.

The report found Sydney International Airport had 90 grounded planes, Brisbane had 70, Perth had 65, Avalon had 36 and Adelaide had 15. Airports also had above regular levels of fuel storage.

"Australia's airports and aviation safety regulations were never designed to accommodate a mass grounding," Federal Member for Bean, David Smith said. "A grounded plane is not an idle one. Each day planes go through complex maintenance, which carries the risk of something going seriously wrong and quickly escalating into catastrophe.

“This risk is compounded by the fact that our airports now have larger than normal fuel reserves. Ground damage is an under-appreciated aviation safety hazard. An aircraft full of fuel at the gate is akin to a bomb in a confined space.

“Aviation fire fighters are a highly specialised workforce, who are trained and equipped in immediate response to any incident at an airport within two minutes. But they can’t do their job properly if they are overstretched and under resourced. 

"Without aviation fire fighter crews on site and fully equipped to respond, Australia’s aviation industry could go up in smoke.

ARFFS crews at Canberra Airport have been slashed from category 8, down to category 7. This represents 14 fewer highly trained fire fighters on call in case of an emergency, despite an increase in VIP RAAF and diplomatic flights.

At Canberra Airport, ARFFS crews are also responsible for the protection of its major terminal building; retail, building and office complexes; underground fuel system where approximately 750,000 litres of fuel are stored; and Boeing 717 maintenance facility.

The sharp drop in air traffic has decimated Airservices revenue stream, raising fears of redundancies across Australia. The report warns a reduction in ARFFS crews would cripple the aviation’s industry ability to snap back post COVID-19.

"I am calling on Michael McCormack, in his role as Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development, to direct Airservices Australia to maintain current staffing levels.

The 2019 unanimous report from Senate Standing Committees on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport found Australia's provision of ARFFS was below international best practise and recommended the Civil Aviation Safety Authority being it in line with other nations. The report also recommended that ARFFS levels be legislated. 

“We need an overhaul of Australia’s aviation rescue and firefighting system, to bring it in line with international standards. COVID-19 makes addressing the flawed methodology for how ARFFS is provided in our airports a matter of critical urgency.