The public is entitled to be better informed about the gravity of the failure of Qantas to carry out its compulsory obligation to strengthen a pressure bulkhead on the six Boeing 737-400s that it grounded two nights ago.

The executive general manager engineering at Qantas, David Cox, has been left to defend the Airline’s’ diminishing reputation in this dangerous farce. Where is departing CEO Dixon, incoming CEO Joyce and chairman Clifford?

Cox has said repeatedly, on radio, television, on line and in print, that the continued operation of the jets which it suddenly grounded had been safe.

That it was just a matter of paperwork. That the one step that was missed (which is integral to the task of preventing the floor under the cockpit rupturing) was “just one of many”.

The five-year-old order to carry out the work Qantas didn’t do was an airworthiness directive. The title is self explanatory: it is compulsory work required to keep a jet airworthy.

Qantas’s dismissal of this process as merely a failure of “paperwork” is astonishing, considering the rigorous conditions attached to such issues in the airline operator certificate or AOC without which Qantas ceases to trade as an airline.

Qantas had these six jets flying for five years in breach of the air safety regulations the Civil Aviation Safety Authority CASA is supposed to monitor and enforce.

The issue was the prevention of cracking due to metal fatigue which could cause a mid air break up.

The Boeing 737-400 is used as a high cycle jet. It generally flies shorter domestic routes each of which is a cycle involving the pressurisation of the jet which is a major focus of maintenance regimes.

So its pressure bulkheads might be stressed and relaxed up to eight times day, compared to once a day on a long haul 747.

Qantas probably flew between 3000 and 4000 people a day on multiple trips between Australian cities for five years on these jets in an illegal condition.

In the US the Federal Aviation Administration fines airlines up to $20,000 per sector per jet in breach of an airworthiness directive.

However, CASA continues to push the Qantas line, that safety wasn’t at issue. This beggars belief. If the inability of the largest Australian airline to carry out compulsory directives isn’t a safety issue, what is?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey