When Continental, one of the few US airlines to order the  787 Dreamliner, publicly contradicts  Boeing over its latest guidance about how late the plastic jet is going to be,  the impact on Qantas becomes more painfully obvious.

Not in terms of Qantas announcements of course. Everything is hunky dory on the 787. Qantas  will be the last airline on earth to realise how thoroughly it is being had over the plastic airliner. It swallows and repeats the Boeing lines, much the same way it once swallowed the Rolls-Royce spin on how wonderful it was to entrust all the major work, and knowledge about its R-R engines to them, so that it could close down more of its investment in engineering excellence in this country.

Trying to discern a pattern, it seems that everything, including credibility, control over major maintenance, and pilot training and endorsements, cabin crewing and even some Australian flying, is capable of being outsourced at Qantas, to crew bases and engineering facilities variously located in Singapore and Hong Kong, and by inference, Bangladesh or the Philippines, if the price is right.

The 787 was critical to the Qantas plan to retire its ageing, and now geriatric Boeing 767 Cityflyer fleet, which keeps breaking down.

This email, from a long-suffering Qantas frequent flyer member is typical.

I have been unfortunate enough to have been delayed by the once great workhorse of the Qantas fleet, the Boeing 767. On more than 3 occasions just in the last few months I have had tickets on 767 operated services that have been delayed or cancelled due to ‘tech issues’. On one of these occasions I was seated behind the engine and observed the port side RR having a rather large black cough on startup. The crew and some other passengers noticed fumes in the cabin soon thereafter and wisely the Captain chose to return to the gate for further inspection. Long story short, I had the pleasure of a stay in the MEL Airport Hilton as a guest of Qantas as a result. In another example I was due to board a 767 from MEL to SYD but the flight was cancelled due to tech issues as the operating aircraft was still on the ground in Sydney. There are other examples given by friends who were in one case delayed by nearly half a day on their flight from ADL to DRW again due to a tech issue with their 767. And just this last Friday afternoon whilst seated in the Perth Qantas lounge I witnessed another 767 being pushed back only to be tugged back to the gate some 10 minutes later. These are only the 767 related tech issues that im aware of, there must be many many more that we will never hear of. Surely these ongoing ‘tech issues’ with the 767 are starting to damage Qantas reputation for on time performance and quality of maintenance by those passengers affected. At the very least it would have to be hurting Qantas own pockets with all the hotel stays and meal vouchers that it is dishing out as a result.

As an avid aviation enthusiast, I am the last one to complain about an aircraft going unserviceable and this is by no means an attack on Qantas. I both understand and appreciate the logistics of running an airline and the benefit of operating fully depreciated aircraft such as the 767.  I am also aware that Qantas plan to take 787s (whenever they become available) for Jetstar, which will in turn free up A330s for transfer to Qantas, which will finally allow the remaining 767s to be retired. I guess the question is (and as much as I love the 767) is this soon enough?

The problem for Qantas is that the natural immediately available successor to the 767, the Airbus A330, is in short supply, and priced accordingly.  And the successor to the A330, the Airbus A350, is in very short supply for its first three or four years of production, and its introduction, from mid-2013, has been put back to later that year and is widely expected to be further delayed.  And it only comes with Rolls-Royce engines!

Sky warriors may have another reason to worry more about the Qantas insouciance concerning the ancient 767s and the perpetually receding prospects of a 787 replacement.   Could the replacement be single-aisle Airbus A321s? Operated by Jetstar?

The profitable growth in the Qantas domestic business is in Jetstar. The A321s have about as many economy seats at the typical Cityflyer 767. And sky warriors generally fly where the corporate travel account management Gestapo tell them to fly, which is increasingly in economy, on the cheapest fare of the day, or else!

Meanwhile in America there are ominous signs that a major rework of sections of the 787 is required following the fire emergency on a 787 test and certification aircraft (ZA002) on November 9.  The 787 is a so-called all-electric systems aircraft, using power generated by the engines in place of bleed air for cabin pressurisation, for example. On November 9 part of that electrical system behaved like an industrial-strength electrical arc furnace, directly under the rear cabin behind the trailing edge of the wing.  The fire burned the insulation blanket that is supposed to separate the equipment from the fuselage made of a laminate of epoxy resin glued and baked layers of reinforced carbon fibre.  It took out some of the other systems on the jet and forced it to rely on replacement electrical power from the RAT, the ram air turbine, which popped out of a compartment under the jet and into the slipstream on a tether.

So, yes, there is a problem. And it is one that is going to force itself on Qantas, and continue to inconvenience those forced to rely on its 767s, for quite some time.

Peter Fray

Save 50% on a year of Crikey and The Atlantic.

The US election is in a little over a month. It seems that there’s a ridiculous twist in the story, almost every day.

Luckily for new Crikey subscribers, we’ve teamed up with one of America’s best publications, The Atlantic for the election race. Subscribe now to make sense of it all, and you’ll get a year of Crikey (usually $199) and a year’s digital subscription to The Atlantic (usually $70AUD), BOTH for just $129.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW