We are now entering the seventh month of pandemic restrictions in aviation and there are few signs that things are going to improve significantly any time soon.
Hopes of a return to air travel have been dashed with the intense resurgence of the virus in Melbourne and elsewhere in the world. With the Victorian border, parts of NSW and the international borders closed, so too air travel remains effectively grounded.
Our airports are like ghost towns with Sydney – once Australia’s busiest airport – now handling a trickle of flights per day. The Sydney to Melbourne flight, the world’s second-busiest air route, is seeing around 50 flights a week.
There are many thousands of workers who are deeply affected by this situation and who are very worried about their futures. At the frontline are those who work at the airlines and airports: the cabin crew, pilots, check-in staff, cabin cleaners, caterers, baggage handlers, ground crew, refuelers, security staff and the many office staff who back up their work.
Many have been stood down for months now and are receiving limited income on JobKeeper. Thousands have been ruled ineligible for the payment because of federal government changes which shut out workers of companies owned by foreign governments.
Outside of the airports, there are many more tens of thousands of workers at tour companies, restaurants, bars and hotels whose jobs are at a standstill because of the air travel restrictions. Businesses at Australia’s tourist destinations which are wondering how long they can hold on.
This level of anxiety should not be happening because, despite the chaos, the pandemic is creating there are some things we can be certain about: we need our aviation and tourism industries.
Aviation and tourism are not sectors we can let die; they are an important component of any modern economy.
So, it simply makes no sense that seven months in, the federal government still does not have a plan for this sector.
The government has tinkered away at the edges with a financial package of over $1 billion it announced back in March.
But not much of that money has been useful to the airlines outside the smaller, regional routes because it came in the form of a waiver of taxes and charges. Beyond the airlines, little money has made its way to the many aviation companies which service the airlines or the many other businesses which depend on air travel.
A more strategic plan is needed for aviation which can help the industry weather the current storm and ensure that companies and skilled workers are ready to return when restrictions are lifted. Without this, our economy’s recovery will be hamstrung.
The TWU’s plan for the sector involves the federal government stepping in and taking a bigger role to guarantee a two-airline model with the government taking equity stakes to ensure a strong and sustainable future; targeted financial assistance for aviation businesses struggling; accessible and affordable services for regions; and protection and promotion of regional jobs.
JobKeeper should be paid to all aviation workers, regardless of their companies’ structure and the problem of workers from different companies at the airport doing the same job but at different rates also needs to be tackled.
Airports at the apex of the system should be regulated with executive pay across the industry capped.
The pandemic is hitting the aviation industry hard and comes after decades of boom-bust in the sector due to terrorism, volcanic ash eruptions, fuel price hikes, swine flu and avian flu.
The current crisis is showing us that we need a new type of management for this sector; one that sees greater government guidance for a vulnerable industry that the entire country depends on.
It is time for the federal government to step in and ensure aviation has a future, for the sake of aviation workers, the travelling public and our nation’s economy.
Michael Kaine is the national secretary at the Transport Workers’ Union.
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