Qantas has scored three headline incidents so far this week.

There were two yesterday, a turnback to Melbourne by a 767 domestic flight with an undercarriage that wouldn’t retract, and the trans Pacific 747 flight that used a nearby Air NZ jet as a seeing eye dog when its weather radar was inoperative for many hours.

On Sunday another QF 747 from Frankfurt arrived in Singapore to fire engines because of an undercarriage problem that delayed passengers for a day while it was fixed.

None of these incidents necessarily relate to maintenance failures at Qantas. And whether they did or didn’t result from the lowered standards of care already identified by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority in its ‘special’ audit of the carrier, the pilots did all the right things when the problems arose.

But the defensive outbursts by outgoing CEO Geoff Dixon raise more fundamental issues.

Why has the last two years of his tenure been such a shambles for Qantas customers? And will incoming CEO Alan Joyce, and hands on chairman Leigh Clifford, stick with a management culture that is a proven failure from a customer perspective, or do something about an airline that can’t keep its jets clean, punctual and fully maintained to the standards that once defined the Qantas brand?

The refusal of mechanics to work overtime for ten weeks in the middle of the year is not the reason why the airline was dysfunctional for months before that dispute, and which has been over for more than three months yet the network is still a mess.

Overtime wasn’t the reason why Qantas overlooked cracks in drip trays on a large part of its fleet, causing one 747 to have a gravely serious crisis near Bangkok on 7 January. It doesn’t explain why a maintenance team at Tullamarine last October pumped nitrogen into emergency oxygen packs, a feat of towering incompetence given the supposedly idiot proof design of the equipment they were using.

It doesn’t pardon the lie from its chief of engineering David Cox, that there was no safety problem with a missed airworthiness directive to modify the forward pressure bulkhead on six of its aged 737-400s (the ones mostly used out of Canberra) which went undetected for five years.

If Cox really has such a disregard for the gravity of compulsory airworthiness directives, which are, surprise, issued in order to correct safety issues, why is he still running the maintenance side of an airline that insists safety is of paramount concern?

Dixon’s recent comments need to be read in conjunction with the CASA audit of Qantas, which found that the airline was failing to maintain its own standards and contradicts his airbrushing of the carrier’s maintenance record.

No amount of posturing changes the farcical record of Qantas jets were being kept on the ground because of lack of spare parts or through the burden of page after page of time limited defects on jets for which there continues to be an inadequate engineering and maintenance resources.

This note from author and Fairfax escapee Ben Hills at the start of the week is just one of the Crikey collection of complaints about the inability of Qantas to keep its fleet in working order:

Last night I was flying back from Melbourne to Sydney on QF 450, scheduled departure 4.30pm, and heard an interesting tale from two flight attendants. The flight was full to the rafters because it had been combined with QF446, which had been due to take off at 4pm but which had been cancelled. Turns out that everyone had boarded the plane when there was an announcement that they would have to deplane because of a “technical problem.”

In fact, said the two attendants, there was no technical problem. What had happened was that the plane scheduled for another flight, which was due to take off around the same time from Melbourne to Perth, had been discovered to have four blocked lavatories – apparently there are rules about how many lavatories have to be operating, and so the plane was ruled US. So Qantas decided to use the plane which had been scheduled for flight 446 instead, kicking off the Sydney passengers and replacing them with Perth passengers. To add to the chaos, there were not enough seats for everyone on QF 450, so some of those QF 446 passengers were kicked off the flight and left at Melbourne airport.

I cannot remember the last time I was on a Qantas flight that took off on time – not for at least a year. This has led to a curious fatalistic attitude by Qantas passengers, a bit like Londoners during the blitz, where they all gather together to share their woes and tell tall tales about their experiences, and the terrible lies that Qantas staff have to tell to cover up the airline’s problems.

There is a lot of work to be done to fix Qantas. Will Joyce take responsibility for this, or keep echoing Dixon’s platitudes?

Peter Fray

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