Qantas has a crisis of perception that became worse overnight when a faulty fuel valve caused one of its aged Rolls-Royce-powered Boeing 747-400s to make a precautionary landing in Fiji yesterday, stranding 375 passengers until this afternoon, when a replacement jet picks them up.

The pilots noticed that the valve, feeding the No.4 engine, had stopped, and decided that the non-stop flight across the Pacific to Los Angeles, and on to New York, would also stop as soon as possible, and landed it at Nadi, which was conveniently close to their position.

This was the second Rolls-Royce engine failure on a Qantas 747 this month, the other occurring before another attempted non-stop service to Los Angeles on January 16 when to quote the intercom message from the cockpit to the cabin on the taxiway to the runway “the engine has cooked itself”.

Qantas had six serious incidents involving this engine type on its 747s last year, including a potentially very serious uncontained engine failure after take off from San Francisco for Sydney last August, and which is also the subject of a continuing ATSB investigation.

These 747 engine incidents were shaded by the massive uncontained failure of a Rolls-Royce engine on an Airbus A380 operating QF32 from Singapore to Sydney on November 4, which caused a grave in-flight crisis and resulted in the airline taking preventative legal action against the engine maker in lieu of a damages claim estimated to be close to $200 million.

The perceptions that Qantas has become unsafe have often been inflamed by sensational reporting of minor incidents.  Last night’s problem was routine but nevertheless troubling, since the exposure of a flight to mechanical problems on a 13-hour 25-minute crossing of the Pacific makes all faults additionally important.

If recent interviews given by Qantas CEO Alan Joyce about his plans to invest more money in the brand are any guide, the airline has also lost its way in dealing with the nasty realities embedded in the perceptions it is trying to counter with spin, gloss and it seems, luck.

Qantas has been stranded with aged jets it never intended to keep this long because of the delays to deliveries of its flagship Airbus A380, and to the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which through fleet shuffling, would have by now seen the departure of its oldest and least reliable medium-sized 767s as well as 747s.

In the sort of logic accountants embrace, but engineers and flight standards professionals abhor, it anticipated the removal of those 747s by outsourcing the heavy maintenance of their engines to a Rolls-Royce facility in Hong Kong, saving it money up front, but costing it control over a key element of its brand image, which is excellence in safety and management.

As the issues on the older 747 engines and the A380 have demonstrated, Qantas trusted Rolls-Royce, and put issues of quality, reliability and equipment upgrades out of mind and off balance sheet. It didn’t even know what Rolls-Royce was doing to the type of engine used on its A380s until one of them disintegrated and pierced the giant jet’s wing, fuel tanks and various control systems with high-speed debris could have destroyed it had the damage, by chance, been inflicted at slightly different entry and exit points.

There are many grounds for being cautious about directly linking off-shoring to all of the problems Qantas is having with unreliable fleet, but the facts are that the incidents are happening too often, and the company no longer believes in investing more than anyone else in flight standards or maintenance.

A constant claim made by Qantas in recent years is that it conforms to world’s-best practice, or meets all of its regulatory obligations to maintenance and flight standards.

Which means it has embraced mediocrity. Any airline can claim to meet the world’s highest standards if it achieves a tick in all the required boxes for compliance. The standards Qantas now holds aloft are world’s best airline business practices.

But only for so long.

Peter Fray

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