A Qantas spokesperson said 'there was no engine fire' but 'it will require replacement'.
A Qantas spokesperson said 'there was no engine fire' but 'it will require replacement'.

In the aftermath of the engine explosion in one of its Boeing 747-400s on Monday night (US time) Qantas has made an admission that goes to the heart of claims that it’s safety standards are declining.

It says it was’ fully compliant’ with a very recent airworthiness directive requiring inspections of the Rolls-Royce RB211 engines because of the risk of the type of explosion that occurred to QF74 less than an hour after it had departed San Francisco on a scheduled flight of more than 13 hours to Sydney.

But was Qantas ‘fully compliant’ with public expectations of exceptional safety standards, a claim that Qantas trades on repeatedly in its insistence that it is better at safety than other carriers?

No, it wasn’t. If Qantas was an airline with an exceptional safety culture it would never have dispatched a 747 with 212 passengers on board on a very long trans Pacific flight with engines that two weeks ago became the subject of an air worthiness directive warning of the dangers of a serious failure in some of its components.

The Qantas position is that it didn’t immediately inspect its RB211 engines because it wasn’t required to by the new directive. It was prepared to wait until their next scheduled maintenance fell due, as the directive does require.

On a non-stop trans Pacific flight this is obviously unacceptable, except to bean counters. The jet that set off as QF74 was going to be a long, long way from anywhere for many hours on its intended route. Qantas is the ‘lucky’ airline. The engine ruptured its containing structure while still close to an airport equipped with full emergency services.

The Qantas statements made in the SMH report amount to ‘we’ve ticked the boxes and are fully compliant with the airworthiness directive’. This is accountant speak for ‘we’ll fly the jet until we are compelled to make the inspection, even across the remote South Pacific.’

In this regard, Qantas is just like many other carriers. It will not go beyond the requirements, just satisfy them. If it was ‘proactive’ about safety it would have prevented any RB211 engined 747 from departing on a trans Pacific non-stop flight until the engines were inspected in advance of the requirements in the AD to carry out the additional inspections when their next scheduled maintenance fell due.

The process of air worthiness directives or ADs needs to be considered here. They are usually issued after ‘consultation’ between the US or European safety regulators and the airframe or engine manufacturers and sometimes, carriers themselves. There is an emphasis in the framing of ADs on commercial co-operation, and it can be argued that this process doesn’t set the highest possible standards, but the lowest minimum standards that will balance the risk to the public against the cost to the airlines.

It is disappointing to see Qantas eagerly embrace this approach, as if it validates its safety culture, when it fact it diminishes it.

If Qantas is serious about rectifying the situation it will immediately inspect all RB211 engines on its 747s before they depart on any long haul remote flights, including the most vulnerable routes, to South America and South Africa.

Or will it huff and puff, and take its chances this sort of incident isn’t repeated seven hours into a flight that puts its 747s over the icebergs of the far southern ocean?

Will Qantas put more RB211 powered 747s into harm’s way today? Or will it act, now?

Will CASA show any leadership? Or will it just sit there and go along with this nonsense, as a sort of rubber stamp for directives made by the FAA?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey