The special audit of Qantas by CASA is “not looking pretty” according to information passed to Crikey.

Several CASA sources have made the same points. Every metric in relation to Qantas maintenance performance shows a downward trend, and there is clear evidence that maintenance action has been deferred to save costs.

The best estimate suggested for the completion of the audit report is more than a week from today, which would coincidentally take it beyond next Thursday’s release of the record Qantas profit for the 12 months to June 30.

The following week is also likely to see the dropping of the report of the Senate Inquiry into the administration of CASA which sat in July.

That inquiry was a response to intense anger over the safety regulator’s failed oversight of Transair before its turboprop airliner crashed into a hillside approaching the Lockhart River airstrip in northern Queensland in May 2005, killing all 15 people on board.

The spokesman for CASA, Peter Gibson, declined to answer questions today about the progress or content of the audit.

He also defended the failure of CASA to pick up the non-compliance of Qantas since 2003 with a compulsory airworthiness directive to strengthen a pressure bulkhead under the cockpit of the six Boeing 737-400s that the airline suddenly grounded on Wednesday night.

Those jets had flown for nearly five years without the completion of work ordered to remove the risk of a “sudden decompression”, which is management speak for a mid-air break up.

“We have thousands of ADs out at any time,” Gibson said. “There would be 2000 of them right now applicable to Qantas. No safety regulator in the world would check whether every AD has been complied with.”

However, when asked whether an AD that applied to pressure bulkheads on a passenger jet might not have been considered more obviously important than others, he said that was a question that was yet to be answered.

CASA is flirting with the same risky territory it found itself in after the Transair crash. It knew Transair was dangerous yet failed to warn the public. If it doesn’t reveal all that it finds out about Qantas in this audit, and there is a maintenance related accident involving the carrier, the consequences for CASA and the Rudd government will be enormously bad.

A five-year long failure of a safety regulator and a major airline to fix a potentially catastrophic weakness in a main line jet as seen in the Qantas bulkhead debacle is without obvious precedent in a developed world airline.

Qantas flew the jets in question more than 9000 times in violation of its obligations, assuming each 737 performed around six sectors a day before Qantas discovered its error.

In the US yesterday the FAA fined American Airlines $US7.1 million for flying just two of its MD-83s 58 times in violation of its rules on “improperly deferring maintenance on safety related equipment” and other deficiencies.

Qantas has never been fined a cent by the Australian regulator over any safety related issue.

Peter Fray

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