Virgin Blue lawyers are crawling over the words of aircraft engineers union federal secretary Steve Purvinas like ants over road kill this morning, but what is really going on?

The airline is furious over the massive tabloid and broadcast media coverage given to claims he made that a wheel in the main gear assembly of its 737-800s “disintegrated” on landing at Melbourne yesterday morning.

His language was “colourful” but as it turns out, the wheel did in the strict meaning of the word, disintegrate. But not disintegrate as in a cloud of dust, metal and great balls of fire.

There are some important issues in play in this incident, for all 737 operators, the passengers on them, the union and the media, which has also copped flack for “alarmist” stories, even though the reporters did nothing other than accurately quote the public voice of a major airline union.

The incident:

The hub inside one of the wheels of the jet sheared almost completely away from the rest of the assembly on touchdown. The pilots noticed the jet pulling to one side and experiencing drag as the taxied otherwise uneventfully to the terminal.

The frequency:

Virgin Blue says “of approximately 2700 Boeing NG 737s operating today, there are 11 instances of this part failing.” This type of 737 has flown more than 100 million passengers since it first went into service in 1998 for Southwest Airlines.

The safety inquiry:

The ATSB study of the part that failed is expected to find out if, or how, it could have been detected prior to the incident, for example, whether such parts should be X-rayed on delivery, or whether there are ways of visibly picking up the flaw before a latent situation turns nasty.

The union/Virgin Blue context:

The Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association is discussing a collective bargaining agreement with the carrier and has accused it off spacing out the intervals of various inspections to cut costs.

In a statement this morning, Purvinas says: “The B737 pre-flight inspection was previously carried out before the first flight of the day by a licensed engineer. This check is being removed from the system of maintenance and will be carried out in a new log known as the flight readiness log. It will no longer require a licensed engineer to certify its completion, only an authorised person. Since the October 7 decision, Virgin have trained all their on-duty unlicensed engineers to take responsibility for this check. The training has been delivered over a two-week period — a licensed engineer takes three months of classroom training and 1000 hours of on-the-job experience to obtain a licence.

On litigation:

The ALAEA would welcome a legal challenge to any comments we have made regarding Virgin maintenance. Our statements are supported by Virgin’s own internal documents, technical log reports and photos of the two separate pieces of a Boeing 737 wheel.

The union’s big wins so far:

Last year the ALAEA crushed Qantas management under Geoff Dixon by banned maintenance overtime by its members in support of pay negotiations. Qantas had seriously neglected its engineering capability, both in human resources and spare parts inventory, and through some poor choices in offshore maintenance. It also paid up.

Under Dixon’s successor, Alan Joyce, the Qantas group is bringing some maintenance back on shore, and has committed to training programs to lift the skills of its engineers and provide continuity and renewal in their workplace.

It isn’t surprising, therefore, that Virgin Blue is looking at every word the union’s management says, and the union is raising the replacement of licensed engineers with less-trained staff.

And the important issue remains the one being examined by the ATSB, which is finding out why the wheel hub broke and how future failures can be prevented.

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off