If this week is any guide, next week’s rolling stop work meetings by Qantas ground engineers will make flying on the airline hell.

On Tuesday just after midnight a 747, QF2 made an emergency return landing at London Heathrow after smoke filled the cabin, and the pilots, wearing oxygen masks, dumped 77 tonnes of fuel on the way back.

On Wednesday a domestic Qantas 767 docked at Sydney with smoke pouring out of a defective undercarriage. And while delays blamed on overtime bans by ground engineers crippled the timetable, several jets were flown abroad empty, apparently to get the minimum maintenance needed for them to legally re-enter passenger service.

Get used to minimum maintenance. The reason Qantas can’t fly to schedule is that it dare not knowingly break the rules on the legal minimums without being liable for criminal prosecutions potentially far more serious than systematically stealing from its freight clients through illegal price fixing.

A late Qantas jet should be a safe Qantas jet. Assuming the managers who are standing in for engineers know what they are doing.

This coming week is critical to the dispute between Qantas and its licensed engineers and mechanics. If Qantas finds a way to replace them root and branch, which is one of the rumours going around, it will cost way more than giving in to demands for a 5% rather than 3% pay rise for each of the next three years. And if a screw up kills a jetload of passengers it costs them “everything”.

Or maybe not. It is an unpleasant reality that in any airline there is a team that calculates and manages risk. Including the risk of loosing a “hull”, a pseudonym for several hundred people wrapped in aluminium, say once every ten or twenty years versus the terrible inefficiencies of the no-longer fashionable cultures of “excessive” excellence in flight and operational standards that built the world’s leading carriers, including Qantas.

The cost of compliance with regulations is one of the few areas left, other than labor “reforms”, where savings can be made.

CASA is holding the line. An email received this morning from within the safety regulator says:

Were keeping a close eye on all that is going on in Qantas. We are making it clear to them that the standards set down in their manuals and the regulations must be met at all times.

There are no short cuts being granted. It is up to Qantas to manage this situation but we will take appropriate action if standards are not met.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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