New Zealand authorities have charged a Pacific Blue pilot with endangering safety during an after dark take-off at Queenstown last June  yet taken no action against the Virgin Blue subsidiary.

This is something that ought to sound an alarm for travellers. In air crash litigation in general, and world wide, airlines are responsible for everything a pilot does in the cockpit because they are obliged to maintain a safety culture.

(Note. Volumes have been written about airline responsibilities in accidents. The public and regulatory expectations are being referred to in this article.)

When Plane Talking reported this incident last year, the response from Virgin Blue was one of denial and puffery. To paraphrase “the illegal flight hadn’t been illegal, safety wasn’t compromised and safety is our number one priority and you are a bad, bad boy”. The usual.

In fact it was a serious reflection on the  airline in that it had happened, because the safety culture obligations of a carrier are to ensure that such lapses do not happen.

At the time Plane Talking made this comment, and is prepared to debate it with management of Virgin Blue, or any airline, whenever they wish.

One of the biggest risks to airline safety today is pilots who think like accountants or shareholders rather than as professional pilots. Pacific Blue needs to do more than ‘co-operate’ after being caught breaking the regulations in a serious and material manner. It needs to audit its safety standards, and refine and enforce a safety culture that prevents pilots from endangering not only jet loads of people, but its reputation and brand value.

The New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority statement in the news report ignores the issue of ultimate responsibility by the airline for the actions of its employees. It says the airline did nothing wrong. It was all the fault of the pilot.

Take this to its logical conclusion. Had the Pacific Blue 737, with a total of 140 people on board, shredded itself all over a mountainside as a result of this illegal departure, then the families and relatives of the dead would be left to pursue the estate of the dead captain for damages and compensation, and the airline could shrug its shoulders and say it was all the fault of the pilot.

Airlines must be held fully accountable for the safety of their operations, as must their directors. This means being accountable for the standards and their delivery. No twisting, turning or dissembling or being protected by the fact that an incident, or a terrible accident, was the result of the breach of a rule by an employee who might be thinking more of the shareholders than operating procedures.

Last year we suggested Pacific Blue conduct a thorough safety audit in the aftermath of this serious incident.  Was there a safety audit, and if so, can the results be shared with the public?

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.