Industrial Action Could Affect Coffs Harbour Airport

COFFS Harbour airport could be one of a number of airports around the country closed because of a dispute between the United Firefighters Union of Australia – Aviation Branch and Air Services Australia, which oversees the Aviation Rescue and Firefighting Services (ARFFS) in Australia.

The union branch has 800 professional aviation firefighter members at 27 airports, across every State and Territory in Australia, as well as on Norfolk Island.

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According to the union, Airservices Australia, a Federal Government-owned corporation, cut the number of firefighters by 94 during the pandemic and has not replaced them since “normal” flying has resumed.

Wes Garrett, Secretary, United Firefighters Union, Aviation Branch, said understaffing meant travellers’ lives were at risk because staffing levels were not compliant with safety regulations.

“At a major aircraft incident, our firefighters have three minutes to intervene, after which the chances of people surviving a major crash with an internal fire is greatly reduced,” Mr Garrett said.

“There is no room for error.

“With people returning to the skies, we don’t have enough staff, and right now we can’t say, hand on heart, that if there was a fire we would be able to deal with it.

“The safety regulations exist so that if a plane crash lands we are able to make an immediate intervention to control the fire and conduct internal rescue operations, the safety of passengers is measured in seconds, and minutes.

“Right now, there simply will not be enough firefighters to rescue passages from a burning aircraft, and that’s not acceptable,” Mr Garrett said.

Every day, dozens of flights are operating from Australia’s airports without what the union deems the necessary level of protection from aviation firefighters on the ground.

An Airservices spokesperson said the decision by the United Firefighters Union of Australia – Aviation Branch (UFUAV) to take potential strike action at Christmas is reckless and a risk to Australian aviation, citing adverse economic impacts on many industries, including tourism and retail.

The spokesperson said Airservices continues to negotiate in good faith with the UFUAV to finalise a new Enterprise Agreement (EA) in line with the Public Service Interim Arrangement.

She said a pay rise could be obtained instantly if the union chose to advocate in the interests of their members and to protect the safety of the Australian public.

Airservices says the union’s staffing and redundancy claims are misleading and designed to justify unnecessary industrial action to support an excessive wage claim, stating that there is no shortage of aviation rescue fire fighters in Airservices’ Aviation Rescue Fire Fighting Service (ARFFS) at Coffs Harbour or at any other location.

It claims that at major airports, fourteen ARFFS are required for the aviation activity, not seventeen as claimed by the UFUAV.

According to Airservices, overall the network requires 740 ARFFS and there are more than 750 on staff at present and nearly 100 trainees entering the system over the next two years.

A union spokesperson told News Of The Area that Airservices Australia has its own report that shows that aircraft in Australia have been “under classified”, meaning that fewer firefighting resources are allocated than are actually needed, which is the basis of the union’s claims.

In the meantime, the travelling public is hoping for a resolution.

By Andrew VIVIAN

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