GREAT Southern FIFO staff doing a midnight run up Albany Highway before flying out to start work are engaging in risky business, the mayor of Albany has told a parliamentary committee.
Giving evidence at a hearing of State Parliament’s inquiry into regional airfares last month, Dennis Wellington expressed concern that most fly-in, fly-out workers from Albany drive rather than fly to Perth before departing for the north of the state.
He estimated the number of FIFO workers driving to Perth from Albany exceeded the 173 mainly Rio Tinto staff that fly between the two cities.
Mr Wellington explained that many workers due to start a morning shift drive to Perth for an early morning flight to avoid spending a night in the state capital at their own expense.
“If people are doing that, then it’s dead-set dangerous,” Mr Wellington said.
He told the parliamentary committee the problem lay mainly with workers at BHP, Fortescue Metals Group and Chevron sites, because unlike Rio Tinto those companies do not fly staff in from Albany.
His warning was echoed by a FIFO contractor who, until 12 months ago, had driven from Albany to Perth Airport and back for four years.
The man, who The Weekender cannot name, confirmed workers often left Albany around midnight to avoid spending about $200-a-night to stay at a Perth hotel.
He said fatigued workers would drive back to Albany straight after a long shift to avoid another $200 slug.
“I’ve got mates who do it and have done it in the past,” the worker said.
“That would be people working for BHP without a doubt, or FMG.”
He said the problem was not limited to Albany, with workers headed for the Pilbara driving to Perth from other places even further away, including Geraldton.
“One in 10 people on site would have a long drive,” he said.
“It’s a grey area.
“Everyone knows you shouldn’t do it, but it happens a lot.”
He said the major companies had fatigue management plans for their own staff, but contractors – who made up much of the FIFO contingent from Albany – often slipped through the cracks.
The worker said Rio staff flying from the Great Southern have Albany as their ‘point of hire’ and are funded to travel from there, but everybody else is deemed to be hired in Perth and must cover their own costs to Perth.
“Years ago when things were booming, if you came, say, from Albany, you could get companies to recognise that as your point of hire,” he said.
“But that’s not the case now.
“Conditions have dropped.”
One ray of hope is Mr Wellington’s revelation that a Rio executive last month expressed interest in a plan to pool resources with BHP, Chevron and FMG to fill a future shuttle flight that could regularly leave Albany for Busselton and then to the Pilbara.
“The interest started from a presentation [the cities of Albany and Busselton] made to Rio in Busselton,” Mr Wellington said.
“They said: ‘Well, we really don’t know. We’ve never been open to [pooling resources with the other companies] in the past, but in the future we would be’.
“In the not too distant future we want to approach the other companies because it’s in our best interests to have people working up north and living down here, because population is one of those things that we do need.”
Mr Wellington said such a flight would “absolutely” improve the viability of Albany Airport, which each year derives about $250,000, or 12 per cent, of its revenue from FIFO flights.
“If you had a decent plane, say a 737 that you could pick up 170 for one company and another 100 for another, well, they’re sharing the cost of the flight, which would make sense,” Mr Wellington said.
Fortescue CEO Nev Power said his company would be “open to exploring opportunities to increase the viability of flights from the southwest to the Pilbara”.
“The safety of our people is our number one priority, and we have clear guidelines on journey management and fatigue to ensure all of our team members get home safely at the end of every shift,” Mr Power added.
Chevron, BHP and Rio were contacted for comment.