Canberra airport at risk

Airservices Australia has slashed the number of aviation fire fighters at Canberra Airport, according to new research, raising fears the region may be left without a vital transport hub.

Aviation Rescue and Fire Fighting (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.

“Canberra Airport has seen increased VIP RAAF and diplomatic flights, but is operating with fewer aviation fire fighters,”  said Greg McConville, national president of the United Firefighters Union of Australia.  

“Aviation fire fighters are a specialised workforce trained to respond to any incident within two minutes. It’s work that civil brigades can’t do. The public isn’t necessarily aware of just how significant the reduced number of crews are, but it can be the difference between a minor event being contained or becoming catastrophic.

“When Australians can again travel freely interstate, it’s worth remembering 58 per cent of that is done by the air – for Canberra it’s airport is a regional hub. But Australians can’t return to the skies if we’re not there on the ground, in full force.”

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

The union commissioned the Rescue, fire fighting and emergency response capacity at Australian airports during the COVID-19 pandemic report by the University of Newcastle’s Centre of Full Employment and Equity to establish the level of preparedness at Australia’s airports to prevent a catastrophic loss. 

The report established crews at Australia’s biggest airports, including Sydney, Avalon, Brisbane, Perth, Canberra and Darwin, are all operating on below standard crew levels, despite many storing some $16.2 billion worth of aircraft. The report found Sydney International Airport had 90 grounded planes, Brisbane had 70, Perth had 65, Avalon had 36, and Adelaide 15.  

Between March and June aviation fire fighters responded to more than 700 incidents across Australia. 

The sharp drop in air traffic has decimated Airservices revenue stream, raising fears of redundancies across Australia. The report warns this may crimp the aviation’s industry ability to snap back post COVID-19. The union is calling on the government to back Airservices. 

“The training to become an aviation fire fighter is a big investment, but with such an uncertain future the younger recruits are considering leaving the force. Without long term security and investment in Airservices we are risking people not seeing it as a viable, secure employment option. The sector won’t be able easily snap back once planes return to the skies.”In 2019, a unanimous report from Senate Standing Committees on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport called for an overhaul of Australia’s aviation rescue and fire fighting 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.