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Airline's policy on breaks doesn't fly in the Employment Court

No doubt you’ve been in the familiar situation where you’re rushing to check-in before your plane takes off. Well a recent Employment Court decision concerning a pilot’s entitlement to rest and meal breaks suggests that it’s not just passengers that are doing the rushing.

QF Jetstar A320Background

Richard Greenslade is a pilot with Jetstar who flies Airbus A320 aircraft on New Zealand, Australian and Fijian routes.

Due to the nature of his role, Greenslade’s hours varied regularly and flight times ranged from 45 minutes to four hours. On any given day, Greenslade might be required to complete up to five flights. 

The turnaround time between flights was 30 minutes for domestic flights and 40 minutes for international flights. Consequently there was no time for Greenslade to have a breather as the turnaround time would almost always be used to perform a number of duties including planning the next flight, aircraft preparation, completion of documentation and supervision of aircraft boarding.

Greenslade was given a chance to eat in the cockpit while the plane was cruising. However he was still on duty and if his attention was required for any reason, the food would have to be put to one side.

The claim
Greenslade claimed that due to the non-stop nature of his work, Jetstar had failed to meet its statutory and contractual obligation to provide him with rest and meal breaks during work time.

Jetstar accepted that Greenslade did not receive rest and meal breaks but claimed that it was exempt from New Zealand’s break requirements. Jetstar also argued that requiring it to provide pilots with rest and meal breaks could compromise its operations as a low cost carrier and even force it to exit the New Zealand market.

The law
The law on rest and meal breaks is relatively straight forward. An employer is required to provide rest and meal breaks of a prescribed duration and frequency which is based on the length of an employee’s work period. For example, an employee who works 8 hours is entitled to two 10 minute rest breaks  and one 30 minute meal break. The breaks can be taken at times agreed between the employee and the employer, or in the absence of agreement, at even intervals. Employers are entitled to provide their employees with a more generous break entitlement than the law provides. However they cannot provide less.

Employment Court decision
Ultimately the Employment Court found that Jetstar was bound by the requirements of New Zealand law irrespective of any operational difficulties mandatory rest and meal breaks might present. Accordingly, Jetstar was held to be in breach of its obligations and was ordered to reach agreement with Greenslade as to the compensation that should be provided.

Despite being a relatively straightforward decision, the case is significant for a number of reasons. For one, it is the first Employment Court decision on the rest and meal break provisions in the Employment Relations Act. More importantly though, the Court’s decision will likely have a far-reaching effect on many Jetstar employees beyond just Greenslade.

What’s also interesting is how things might have gone had the Government’s upcoming changes to rest and meal break entitlements been in force.

The changes will do away with the prescriptive break times and durations in the current law and instead allow employers and employees to agree on an arrangement that is appropriate for their circumstances. Where rest and meal breaks are not practical, employers will have the option of providing compensation to employees such as earlier finish times or a top-up payment.

Jetstar’s case would likely have still failed under the new rules as Greenslade was not compensated for missing out on his breaks. However the flexibility that the changes will afford will no doubt be welcomed by employers with important operational considerations and should help them avoid making the same mistakes.