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Virgin Australia delays vote on controversial enterprise agreement that would cut pilots’ days off

<span>Some Virgin Australia pilots alleged they are routinely rostered to work 12 hours or longer on back-to-back days.</span><span>Photograph: Dan Peled/AAP</span>
Some Virgin Australia pilots alleged they are routinely rostered to work 12 hours or longer on back-to-back days.Photograph: Dan Peled/AAP

Virgin Australia has made a last-minute decision to delay putting a controversial pilots’ enterprise deal to vote, after outcry about its plan to cut days off and concerns that pilot rostering was nearing unsafe limits.

The decision comes as Civil Aviation Safety Authority (Casa) officials flagged they were aware of fatigue concerns over Virgin Australia’s pilot rostering after the Guardian revealed internal disquiet on the issue among senior pilots and frustration at what they felt was an inadequate response from management.


Matthew Bouttell, the executive manager of Casa’s regulatory oversight division, told a Senate estimates hearing last month “there has been adjustments to [Virgin’s] roster where they’re getting closer to the limits of that fatigue risk management system”.

Related: ‘Rostering to the limits’: senior Virgin Australia pilots raise safety concerns over fatigue

Some pilots alleged they are routinely rostered to work maximum shift lengths – 12 hours and longer in the event of delays – on back-to-back days, while allowing for just the legal minimum rest period of 12 hours.

Bouttell added that, in a recent 28-day pilot roster period, 45 crew removed themselves from duty due to fatigue – just under 5% of pilots at the airline.

Casa later released a statement tempering the concern raised in Bouttell’s comments about rostering closer to approved anti-fatigue limits. It insisted Virgin was still operating on the safe side of the limits. However, Casa said “we are engaging with Virgin Australia on [fatigue] claims raised through the media”.

Guardian Australia previously reported concerns from pilots that self-reporting fatigue can lead to less pay if they refuse a shift. Pilots have also expressed anger at outdated roster software which they claim has not been replaced despite a promise to do so by the owners of the airline, private equity firm Bain Capital.

The frustrations and fatigue concerns have laid the groundwork for tense negotiations over pilots’ new enterprise deal.

Virgin Australia and the Transport Workers’ Union (TWU) have been in a standoff over a proposal from the airline to strip pilots of six days’ annual leave.

Under Virgin pilots’ existing enterprise agreement, which lapses at the end of June, pilots are entitled to 12 days off every 28-day roster period, of which there are 13 periods a year. For the new deal, Virgin Australia had been proposing that for six of the 13 roster periods, days off would be cut to 11.

Related: Virgin Australia is rostering pilots ‘closer to the limit’ of fatigue, watchdog tells Senate estimates

As part of the proposed deal – which has been agreed with the Australian Federation of Air Pilots, a union which represents a majority of pilots at Virgin – pilots would receive a 9.38% pay rise in the first year, and 3% rises in the second and third years, in return for the loss of the six days off.

The airline had initially dismissed the results of a TWU survey which found that of 180 pilot respondents, 93% intended to vote no to the proposed deal.

However, after a series of “roadshow” town hall-style sessions with pilots over the past week, the airline has delayed the access period – a seven-day period before an enterprise agreement can be voted on – which had been due to start on Friday.

“Discussions with our pilots during Enterprise Agreement (EA) roadshows this week have been valuable and constructive. We listen actively in these discussions and wherever we can, within the bounds of the existing pay offer, take on board the feedback,” a Virgin Australia spokesperson said.

“Based on the feedback from our pilot team, there are a few small points with respect to the documentation which we are considering before we release the final EA document and commence the voting process.”

Virgin is expected to finalise its enterprise agreement and commence the access period next week.

The TWU national secretary, Michael Kaine, said this was “a positive turnaround from Virgin” and its owners, Bain.

“Pilots have raised their voices on fatiguing rosters and the need to maintain their days off after the promise of a new rostering system was abandoned,” he said.

“Virgin must return to the table and fix these outstanding issues to reach an agreement worth voting for,” he said.