Aviation firefighters threaten holiday season strike, grounding planes around Australia

Planes could be grounded around Australia next month with the firefighters’ union threatening to hold a strike, claiming a shortage of aviation fire and rescue teams is putting travellers at risk.

The aviation branch of the United Firefighters Union (UFU) will open a strike ballot to its members on Wednesday with a result expected in two weeks’ time. 

UFU Aviation Branch Secretary Wes Garrett said as a result of cuts made during the pandemic staffing levels at airports around the country no longer meet safety standards. 

“Aviation firefighters have just three minutes to respond to serious aviation incidents,” he said.

“Today and for some time now right around the country planes are landing at airports that do not have the necessary staffing to fulfil ARFFS (Aviation Rescue Fire Fighting Service) operational objectives. 

“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’d be able to deal with it.” 

Mr Garrett said there were currently 776 aviation firefighters operating at 27 airports around Australia with about 850 needed to comply with regulations.

“After a 2019 Senate Inquiry urged action to address understaffing, we’ve pushed for change and done everything possible this year to negotiate with Airservices Australia to get them to properly resource firefighters to meet minimum safety standards required under international regulations,” he said. 

“Today three years later, Airservices have still not acted upon those recommendations.” 

 A man standing outdoors in front of a green hedge
UFU Aviation Branch Secretary Wes Garrett says about 74 more aviation firefighters are needed to meet safety regulations. (ABC News)

Airservices Australia has urged the union to abandon its strike ballot, arguing that there is not a shortage of aviation firefighters and that the dispute is instead over ongoing pay negotiations. 

“Airservices continues to negotiate in good faith with the UFUAV to finalise a new EA,” an Airservices Australia spokesperson said. 

“We have made a generous pay increase offer of 11.5 per cent over three years.

“This offer is above that of the Federal Government’s interim arrangement of only three per cent for the next 12 months.

“Airservices will take all steps necessary to prevent disruptions to flights as a result of the industrial action.” 

In a statement, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, said that it routinely conducts audit and surveillance activities on Airservices Australia “to ensure aviation fire and rescue services are delivered in accordance with regulatory and safety requirements”. 

The strike action will likely begin next month and run through the holiday season.