Leaked internal documents from one of the companies used by Qantas to outsource baggage handling jobs have exposed shocking safety breaches at Australian airports in the past six months.
The incidents at Swissport have included guns being left on arrivals carousels, dangerous goods being taken onto planes undocumented, aircraft being damaged and staff working while injured.
As the beleaguered local aviation industry struggles to return to its pre-pandemic capacity, Swissport has acknowledged to staff on more than one occasion it doesn’t have enough workers to sustainably meet the ongoing demand from airlines.
Swissport provides ground handling services for multiple international and Australian airlines, including Qantas.
A Swissport worker who provides services for Qantas domestic flights, who asked not to be identified because of the company’s strict media policy, said a high turnover rate had contributed to chronic understaffing and an unsafe workplace.
“The reason we’re understaffed is it’s a very hard job, but also people don’t feel valued; the pay’s very low and there’s generally a very bad safety culture,” they said.
“We’re sent a memo when incidents do occur; all they really say is don’t do this again. “There’s very little accountability, very little enforcement of safety rules.”
They said workers were being asked to meet unrealistic deadlines by managers who appeared to be “under a lot of pressure” to meet their own deadlines from Qantas.
“A good example is regarding what’s called ramp teams; so when we go out and service the standard Boeing 737 planes that Qantas use, you’d usually have a team of four people to do all the tasks associated with that,” they said.
“But often there’s teams of only three people … and in some cases there’s even two people or one person assigned to a whole plane.”
The Transport Workers’ Union has written to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau and the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, asking them to investigate the safety incidents at Swissport and the labour “supply chains” used by Qantas.
“The community should be rightly alarmed as we are of the revelations,” TWU national secretary Michael Kaine said.
Qantas has suffered a shortage of baggage handlers since its 2020 decision to outsource about 1,700 jobs to third-party companies including Swissport.
That decision was found to be unlawful and in part motivated by the fact many of the national carrier’s own baggage handlers were union members with stronger bargaining capability.
Qantas is attempting to challenge that finding in the High Court.
The ground handlers used by Qantas are understood to have increased their workforce by 25 per cent since Easter, while the rate of misplaced bags has decreased from 12 per 1000 in April to 6 per 1000 in August.
A Qantas spokesman said data showed specialist ground handlers had a lower rate of incidents compared to when the work was done in-house.
“Only since the outsourcing (is the TWU) commenting publicly on these incidents and the travelling public deserves to be cynical about that,” he said.
“This kind of behaviour is hypocritical and undermines the strong safety culture that exists throughout Australian aviation.”
A spokeswoman for Swissport said it encouraged the reporting of all possible safety issues, “regardless of whether those concerns ultimately prove to have no foundation”.
“That is indicative of a high performing organisation, with a real commitment to safety,” she said.
She said Australian aviation ground handlers had experienced “unprecedented staff turnover” since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
She said this was partly a result of the former Australian government’s decision to “exclude them” from the same support offered to airlines and airports.
The spokeswoman said Swissport was making “enormous efforts” to recruit and retain new staff, including engaging specialist recruitment firms, taking part in jobs fairs, and appealing to university students.