FIFO, FIFO; It’s Off To Work We Go

Yarrie Nimingarra Iron Mine in Western AustraliaMost of us think about flights and air travel as a way of going on holiday, or maybe the occasional business trip. But to many of those who live in Perth and the surrounding areas, air travel is a bit more humdrum and everyday, thanks to the new (or, rather, not so new) buzzword in Australian aviation: FIFO.

FIFO stands for Fly In, Fly Out. This concept is especially important to the Australian economy, given the importance of the mining industry. Most of the mines are tucked away in the interior in very remote areas. The owners of the mining companies have two options when it comes to getting people to actually do the hard work: they can build them houses in the area so the miners can live where they work, or they can provide transport to work. And it’s the latter option that’s the cheaper one, and probably makes it a bit more comfortable for the families of those miners, who possibly prefer to live in a metropolitan area with decent shops, schools and the rest.

How FIFO works is like that: very early in the morning, the miners leave home and head for Perth airport. Aeroplanes come to pick them up and take them to work – these are usually smaller passenger planes such as Dash-8s and Embraer Brasilias that can seat about 30–40 people. These are no-frills flights: you’re not going to find an in-flight movie or flight stewards handing out coffee. The plane takes the miners to the mine site, where they stay for a certain amount of time, depending on the roster on their contract – a week, a fortnight or a month. They stay in the mining quarters during their roster period, and fly back home at the end of it.

According to an article published in Pacific Wings aviation magazine (February 2011), 77% of mining contractors in Western Australia use the FIFO option, and these miners accounted for up to 10 million “bums on seats” (each time someone rides on the plane, that counts as a “bum”) in 2010. The miners clock up quite a few air miles, so they manage to get Platinum and Gold memberships in the Qantas Club – and they probably deserve the privileges, especially as they do the work related to real platinum and real gold – and to the minerals and metals that go into making the planes they fly in.

For most of us who aren’t directly part of the mining industry and look on Perth and the Outback, what does FIFO have to do with us? Well, apart from explaining who all those tired-looking people in high-viz clothing getting off the little plane at Perth airport are, FIFO operations have meant that Perth Airport is investing a lot of money in expanding and improving the airport facilities (car parks, a bigger passenger terminal and the like), which will be good for all of us using these facilities, not just the FIFO miners.

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