There's $16.2 billion worth of planes sitting grounded at Australian airports that has created a "powder keg" waiting to go off, the United Firefighters Union says.
Australia's firefighting union released a report on Monday which criticises Airservices Australia's decision to cut back on aviation firefighting services stationed at airports due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The union claims that with so many planes grounded and taking up tarmac across the country, this presents a greater safety risk to the $16.2 billion worth of aircraft, $7 billion of infrastructure and the public than during peak travel periods.
Airservices Australia says despite the cuts to staff and equipment numbers at airports, it has the appropriate staffing in place to ensure public safety.
The amount of aviation firefighting resources stationed at airports is based on the amount of passenger movements that transit through that airport and also the size of the jets that regularly use the airport.
Airports are graded on a 10-point scale based on the size of jets regularly using it with the largest airports, such as Sydney, graded a 10. Canberra Airport was previously staffed to a grade eight standard but this has been reduced to a grade seven due to COVID-19.
United Firefighters Union aviation branch secretary Mark von Nida said this equated to a one-quarter drop in staff from eight firefighters to six at Canberra Airport and only two of the 9000-litre specialised aviation fire trucks being operational, instead of three.
Mr von Nida said the 9000 fewer litres of water or firefighting foam made a huge difference but the fewer staff meant there were less firefighters on hand to protect colleagues actively engaged in firefighting and staff could no longer be cycled through the more strenuous activities.
The union's national president, Greg McConville, said Airservices Australia needed to abandon calculating firefighting services based on passenger numbers because that did not take into account the danger posed by a "powder keg" of planes parked across the nation.
"Unlike before, we now have large numbers of aircraft stored adjacent to each other, on the ground, fully fueled, with reduced fire cover," Mr McConville said.
"A fire in one plane could quickly become a fire in two, could quickly become a fire in 20.
"Remember that this is jet fuel, it's ridiculously flammable, it's not like petrol in a car and there are accompanying fuel storage bases at many of the airports where the aircraft are stored."
Australia's largest airports are now home to hundreds of grounded aircraft, with 90 aircraft sitting idle at Sydney Airport, 70 in Brisbane and 65 in Perth. Canberra Airport confirmed it currently has no grounded aircraft.
Despite the lack of passenger activity, aviation firefighters still responded to more than 700 incidents between March and June at airports across Australia.
Mr McConville said the union held serious concerns about the future of aviation firefighting due to the current cuts. Firefighters had already been directed to take leave and he said once that was exhausted redundancies usually followed.
"If you start getting rid of aviation firefighters, you cannot simply replace their role by using state or territory civilian firefighting resources," he said.
"Putting an urban fire and rescue pumper in the way of a jet aircraft on fire is not going to do anything."
The report, completed by the University of Newcastle, also suggested reducing firefighting capacity could have unintended consequences such as damage to the tourism industry if a fire destroyed a plane or part of a terminal.
Not only would this create logistical complications once the tourism sector recovered post-COVID, it could cause massive reputation damage to the Australian airline industry, which has always been highly regarded and considered safe.
An Airservices Australia spokesperson said the aviation rescue and firefighting services were determined by Civil Aviation Safety Authority regulations which meant staffing could be adjusted to meet demand.
"Airservices will always ensure it has the appropriate staffing numbers to meet Civil Aviation Safety Authority requirements and to ensure the safety of the travelling public," the spokesperson said.
Figures provided by Canberra Airport show there are currently about 100 flights per week operating out of Canberra Airport, down from 773 flights per week prior to the pandemic.
The union called on Airservices Australia to follow the recommendation set by a 2019 Senate inquiry which found that Australia's aviation firefighting capabilities should be increased.