Ace pilots only


Jetstar quells concerns over junior jet jockeys.

Jetstar says junior pilots won’t be flying into New Zealand’s most dangerous airport – Queenstown.

The Qantas budget airline – which launched Queenstown services last week – is responding to alarm bells from the commercial-pilot fraternity.

New Zealand’s Airline Pilots Association told members last month that Qantas-Jetstar plans to hire 10 Airbus A320 pilots from Britain’s low-cost EasyJet on temporary contracts “do not bode well for safety levels in the New Zealand aviation industry”.

But Jetstar’s big boss Bruce Buchanan is adamant.

“I can give you a commitment that no one with low experience will be flying into Queenstown – we’ll have only our most experienced pilots flying there,” he says from Australia this week.

Buchanan downplays a notice for Jetstar in an EasyJet pilot news­letter seeking first officers with as few as 1500 flying hours – and as little as 500 hours on A320s.

By contrast, Mountain Scene understands most Air NZ co-pilots on Queenstown flights have at least 8000 hours. Buchanan: “We wouldn’t put low-experience pilots into Queenstown – full stop.

“They won’t be flying on that route. We have much higher threshold standards for Queenstown.

“It’s just a short-term thing with these guys coming in from EasyJet and it’s just to build up expertise while we get our guys trained up.”

But only 1500 flying hours?

“They’re minimums but you look at the average experience base – many, many thousands of hours,” Buchanan says.

Objections by NZALPA are stalling work permits for the EasyJet temps.

Their fate now rests with Immigration Minister Jonathan Coleman, NZALPA boss Rick Mirkin understands.
No worries, Buchanan says: “We can bring [the EasyJet] pilots into Australia and then take Australian pilots over [to NZ].

“It’s only for two months while we’re getting all the pilots trained up.”

All-Aussie crews pilot Jetstar domestic flights meantime.

“We’ve got our most experienced captains from Australia over there for our operation into Queens­town,” Buchanan says.

He shrugs off NZALPA claims of Jetstar having to bring in EasyJet and Aussie pilots because its pay offer to Kiwi A320 pilots is only about half what Air NZ pays. “I don’t know what Air NZ pays,” says Buchanan, but Jetstar offers “a very attractive six-figure salary”.

NZALPA claims novice A320 pilots get around $140,000 after three years with Air NZ – but only about $70,000 with Jetstar, plus a non-guaranteed $10,000 bonus.

NZALPA goes back to the Employment Court on July 27, Mirkin says, trying to prevent another Qantas subsidiary – Jet Connect – “closing the door” on Boeing 737 pilots who previously flew Qantas domestic services.


NZ’s diciest airport

Queenstown is officially New Zealand’s most dangerous jet-capable airport.

Our Civil Aviation Authority grades airports A, B, C and X – the NZ Airline Pilots Association believes Queens­town holds the only X-rating. Wellington scores C.

Both Queenstown and Wellington remain rated “Black Star” – “Critically Deficient” – by the Inter­-national Federation of Airline Pilots.

So why is ZQN so dicey?

Mountain Scene went to a senior pilot with 25 years’ experience – he can’t be named because of a media ban in his employment contract.

“[Queenstown] has a unique mix of threats to the operation of passenger jet aircraft – close-proximity high terrain, lack of precision approach navigation aids, and a short, narrow runway.

“[Together with] windshear and turbulence, most pilots are fearful of operating in there as the combination of these factors means we’re at the extreme end of the envelope.

“We’re simply never exposed to such an array of threats to the safe operation of our aircraft at any other airport.”
Jetstar boss Bruce Buchanan seems to agree. At a local Chamber of Commerce lunch last Friday, Buchanan said Queenstown Airport was one of a pilot’s toughest challenges.