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Australian travellers to face flight disruptions next week during industrial action by airport firefighters

<span>Photograph: Mfb News Handout/EPA</span>
Photograph: Mfb News Handout/EPA

Passengers across Australia may face major flight disruptions nextweek when firefighters at 27 airports walk off the job.

The United Firefighters Union aviation branch announced on Tuesday members will stop work on Friday week in protest over staffing levels and safety concerns amid months of negotiation with Airservices Australia over a new enterprise agreement.

The strike, planned to go ahead between 6am-10am AEDT on Friday 9 December, could result in grounded international and domestic flights, according to the union, as some aircraft are not permitted to land at an airport without firefighters on duty, while other airlines choose not to.

Wesley Garrett, aviation branch secretary of the United Firefighters union, said aviation firefighters had been left with no choice but to take stop-work action.

“Every day the lives of 2,500 air travellers across Australia are being put at risk because they don’t have the protection they need from understaffed aviation firefighters,” he said.

“Air travellers don’t have the protection they need because Airservices cut 100 aviation firefighters from Australia’s airports to cut costs in October 2021,” Garrett said, referencing a voluntary retirement scheme.

Related: Australians turn to interstate train travel amid soaring domestic air fares heading into holiday peak

Garrett said that since October 2021, every month more than 600 flights are “operating from Australia’s airports without the aviation firefighting protection they require under international aviation safety regulation”.

“We understand that this will be extremely disruptive for Australia’s air travellers and aviation firefighters sincerely apologise for the inconvenience. But for over a year now, the safety of air travellers has been consistently put at risk each time they board an aircraft because we don’t have enough aviation firefighters to protect them if their plane crashes or catches fire, and that’s not acceptable,” Garrett said.

He called for minimum staffing level clauses to be written into the enterprise agreement, and for the federal government to intervene.

The firefighters’ planned action comes ahead of a potentially chaotic end-of-year travel period, with Flight Attendants’ Association of Australia (FAAA) last Thursday announcing that its Qantas domestic flight attendant members had voted to support industrial action in response to the airline’s pay offer.

In addition to potential disruptions resulting from industrial action, Australian travellers are facing record-high domestic flight prices not seen since March 2004, with return fares between Sydney and Melbourne on budget carriers averaging $500 in December.

On Tuesday, Guardian Australia revealed that travellers facing expensive domestic air fares are opting for cheaper overnight trains and coaches to travel interstate, with patronage between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane more than doubling in recent months as services are booked to capacity.

The stop-work action will occur at 27 airports across every state and territory including Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane, the Gold Coast, Adelaide, Perth, Darwin and Hobart as well as smaller regional airports such as Ballina, Coffs Harbour, Broome and Alice Springs. Firefighters will still respond to non-aviation related incidents at airports during the four-hour stop-work action.

In response to the announced strike, Airservices Australia said it was disappointed to hear of the union’s planned action, and called its claims about safety issues “highly misleading”.

An Airservices Australia spokesperson said it would continue to negotiate “in good faith” with the union.

“There is no shortage of aviation rescue fire fighters in Airservices’ Aviation Rescue Fire Fighting Service (ARFFS) at Sydney or at any other location. Airservices Australia’s staffing requirements for aviation rescue fire fighting services at 27 of Australia’s busiest airports are highly regulated by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority,” the spokesperson said.

“We continue to meet all service requirements nationally to ensure the safety of airlines, airports and the travelling public – safety is our No 1 priority. Airservices will continue to work with industry and safety agencies to minimise disruptions to flights as a result of the industrial action,” the spokesperson said.

Trevor Rodgers, a recently retired aviation fire commander who worked in the industry for 38 years, warned a shortage of aviation firefighters “could have catastrophic consequences for the passengers of a burning aircraft”.

“Aviation firefighters have just three minutes to reach a burning aircraft and make an intervention to save the passengers. After that three minute period of time, the fire penetrates the cabin and the chances of people surviving a major crash internal fire is greatly reduced,” he said.

“If we do not have the aviation firefighters and the appliances they crew available at the time of the incident, large numbers of people will die. It’s just that simple,” Rodgers said.