This week’s stand offs between angry passengers and Qantas has seen air travel cross the same threshold of ugliness it did in America , the UK and much of Europe years ago.

It is close to war between some carriers and their customers abroad, with the loathing that exists between British Airways and the mob scenes of its top tier frequent flyer members throwing their cards in disgust on the floor of Heathrow Airport indicative of what happens when incompetence becomes entrenched in service delivery.

But now an Australian airline has started using security and police to protect itself from outraged punters who don’t get what they paid for, which is punctuality, civility and cleanliness.

The invasion of a Qantas Club lounge at Sydney’s international terminal on Monday by passengers who had been completely screwed by a cumulative 24-hour delay on a flight to London really isn’t the amusing incident it was reported as being in some quarters.

It was a rupture of trust that is very dangerous for Qantas, and a clear warning to Virgin Blue and Tiger.

That incident and others that followed this week arise from the inability of Qantas to maintain its fleet in reliable working order.

Pre the lounge invasion Qantas and Jetstar have dumped jetloads of hundreds of passengers at a time in terminals, even outside locked terminals, in Sydney, Perth, Hobart and Honolulu among others as aircraft broke down and staff dithered over the arrangements or obligations needed to accommodate them.

Passengers have been left sleeping on bus shed benches in some cases.

Qantas no longer has enough spare parts nor qualified maintenance staff on duty, to perform the necessary pre-flight or turnaround checks, or carry out what in a full service carrier would be otherwise routine running repairs or rectifications.

It goes beyond the current overtime bans by maintenance workers too. Most of the screw ups in Qantas and Jetstar flights this year have happened before the bans were applied.

The forced withdrawal from service of four aged 747s and several seriously unreliable senior 767s just announced by Qantas will make things much worse. These jets aren’t worth the heavy maintenance they need to remain safe and legal, but the replacements Qantas thought it was getting through a large order of Boeing “Dreamliners” isn’t going to happen this year, as planned, or even next year, as more recently promised by the maker, and possibly not until 2011. The Dudliner hasn’t even flown yet. It is still in pieces in Seattle, being wired together.

Yet the maintenance union claims Qantas gutted its engineering resources in Australia in anticipation of outsourcing even more of the work overseas as it introduces new wide bodied jets including the giant Airbus A380s and the Dreamliners and now seems unable to cope with their late deliveries.

Whatever management and the unions say about their respective positions is lost on alienated customers.

The brand is trashing itself as management finds itself trapped by aircraft makers that can’t deliver, and maintenance arrangements that can’t cope.

Peter Fray

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