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Qantas pilots warn safety risks loom as air travel rebounds

Aircraft operated by Qantas Airways Ltd. on the tarmac at Sydney Airport in Sydney, Australia, on Wednesday, June 23, 2021.

Qantas Airways' pilots union has warned of looming risks to flight safety – from crew fatigue to looser landing rules in Australia – as a travel rebound stretches an industry still fragile from the pandemic.

With domestic travel restrictions eased, passenger demand in Australia exceeds 2019 levels and Qantas and smaller rival Virgin Australia are ordering new planes for a post-Covid era.

There are concerns some proposals to handle the faster-than-expected recovery may be too much for a global workforce decimated by layoffs and bereft of its most experienced pilots.

A proposal by Brisbane Airport, for example, to breach international protocol and allow planes to land with stronger tailwinds in order to accommodate more air traffic raises the chance of a mistake, particularly by foreign airline crew, said Tony Lucas, president of Qantas union, the Australian & International Pilots Association. Normal practice is to take off and land against the wind.Lucas, a Qantas A330 captain who joined the airline in 1995, said he’s also concerned that long-range Airbus SE A321XLR jets, due to arrive at the airline in late 2024, will compromise safety by lacking proper rest areas for pilots on long Asian routes.

Aviation’s recovery from its worst-ever crisis is highlighting stress points on infrastructure and workers that have essentially laid fallow for two years. Worldwide, airports and airlines that lost thousands of staff have been swamped by returning passengers, and some pilots are just getting used to being back at the controls.

Airservices Australia, which manages the country’s airspace, and Brisbane Airport last month proposed increasing the allowable tailwind for landings and takeoffs on its parallel runways to 7 knots (13 kilometers per hour) from 5 knots. The change aims to let more flights arrive and depart over the ocean rather than city suburbs. Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority said the airport’s proposal is subject to a detailed safety assessment and is being reviewed.

Approaching with a wind coming from behind the plane tends to increase landing speed, leaving pilots with less time and space to handle unexpected events. “Our major concern is it decreases our safety margins,” Lucas said. “If something else happens, I’m running rapidly out of options.”

Accepting a higher threshold for tailwinds also normalises the concept of landing with the wind, making it more likely the change may be introduced in international gateway Sydney, said Lucas. Ultimately, the union could instruct pilots not to land with a tailwind of more than 5 knots, he said.

Read more:
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Lucas, in his first interview since becoming union president this year, also said he’s worried that insufficiently rested A321XLR pilots will be more susceptible to errors when they land after overnight flights to Australia from Asia.

Qantas this month ordered 40 A321XLRs and A220 aircraft from Airbus, with options for 94 more jets over at least a decade.

“Your decision-making is slower, your reaction times are slower, you’re more likely to get a poor landing,” he said. “I think the traveling public would probably prefer their crew to have had a couple of hours sleep in something better than just a domestic business class seat.”

Qantas said the airline is in talks with the union and the regulator about how to manage fatigue on the planes. “We will of course make sure that we have the right protocols in place to ensure safe operation and to look after all our crew,” the airline said in a statement. BM


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