There is a lot more happening at (and to) Qantas than the industrial strife that has trashed its schedule over higher pay for maintenance engineers.

Rewind no further than the start of the year and Qantas was in significant trouble with its product — but not yet its profitability — well before the mechanics spat the dummy and the cost of fuel went sky high.

Flying with the carrier was already a grubby experience with unreliable and dirty aircraft. The bonus-driven cost-cutting culture was slashing deep into the heart of the legacies of excellence and respect for technical skills, hacking away at expenditure that could be deemed irrelevant to the next set of financial results.

The airline was dead lucky that an electrical failure to a 747 already close to Bangkok Airport happened where it did, in still air in broad daylight, and not over Antarctica, where it had been on New Year’s Eve, which would almost certainly have ended in tragedy.

It was dead lucky with incompetent flying standards that nearly exhausted the fuel on a Perth flight approaching Sydney. It had been lucky with inferior piloting on a Jetstar flight at Melbourne last July.

Even on home territory it was having maintenance screw-ups, such as nitrogen in oxygen tanks, and water from blocked drains getting into electrical systems.

There was a shortage of spare parts, great for lowering inventory costs, at key ‘outstations’ causing delays while the likes of replacement engines were ferried in, and its was starting to call the police to protect itself from aggrieved customers.

Like many other airlines, Qantas knows that in the medium term, new aircraft technology will mean that the work practices of today’s in-house maintenance units will inevitably go the way of the dinosaur.

The next generation of Airbuses and Boeings eliminates much of the old ways of servicing jets. There are very good reasons why any airline would contemplate outsourcing maintenance of the coming generation of passenger aircraft to centralised facilities. Engineers know that too. It is time for serious dialogues over how and where the skills of engineers will be required and deployed.

But unfortunately for Qantas, it isn’t time to be flying a large number of old jets with an astonishingly high tally of time-limited defects, overseen by less experienced (if not inexperienced) replacements for critically important maintenance staff who haven’t received a pay increase in a considerable time.

Where Qantas management wants to go is crystal clear. It wants a stripped-down set of core enterprises like fleet, airline operations and loyalty programs, all leveraging a brand that it might perhaps dimly comprehend is being diminished by the current situation. It wants to centralise the rewards and externalise the costs and risks.

Qantas management wants to be unencumbered by any labour that can be replaced by outside agreements. It wants to cut loose from legacy inefficiencies. But it seems to have lost sight of the need to carry the customers with it, using the jets it now has, in a clean, reliable and fully operational state.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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