SYDNEY • The Australian government is expected to relax curbs on visas for foreign pilots as a national shortage has led to planes being grounded and flights cancelled, aviation officials said yesterday.
Australia earlier this year removed pilots from a list of eligible professions allowed to work in the country as so-called skilled migrants amid a crackdown to promote "Australia-first".
With a global shortage of pilots, Australia's international carriers have lost staff to competitors, forcing them to recruit from domestic carriers, which are in turn employing trained pilots from smaller regional airlines.
Unable to source enough pilots, the country's regional carriers have been forced to cancel flights, but Mr Mike Higgins, chief executive officer of industry body Regional Aviation Association of Australia, said the government has told him it will ease curbs in January.
"The government has said it will add pilots to the skilled migrant visa list in January and they will be able to work in Australia for two years," said Mr Higgins.
Representatives for Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A relaxation of visa restrictions would provide some relief to Australia's rural travellers, who have been beset by frequent flight cancellations.
According to Australian government data, 3 per cent of domestic flights were cancelled in November, the highest monthly level in nearly six years.
Cancellations of domestic flights hit a high of more than 5 per cent in December 2011, when a volcanic ash cloud from Chile grounded flights.
The carriers with the most cancellations were Virgin Australia and QantasLink, the regional carrier of national carrier Qantas Airways, the data showed.
Representatives for both companies did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Australia's centre-right government can ill-afford to alienate rural voters, a central voter block for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who is struggling to keep his grip on power.
The opposition Labor Party welcomed the likely visa relaxation, but said the government must do more to improve the ability of locals to train as pilots.
"We need to make sure we can keep our planes in the air, you can't train pilots in just a day or a week or a month," Mr Anthony Albanese told reporters yesterday.
"The problem is training enough Australian pilots to fulfil our domestic aviation needs."