Qantas Airways Limited, the airline whose stellar safety record was made famous by Hollywood, is once again in the spotlight due to mechanical problems.
The Australian airline has been plagued by in-flight problems since the middle of last week, starting with a May Day alert and engine shutdown on a flight from Auckland to Sydney. Since then, at least four planes have turned around because of wing flaps, warning indicator lights or smoke in the cabin. All the planes landed safely.
The series of events is particularly traumatic for an airline that has built – and emphasized – a reputation for safety. Qantas has never suffered a fatal jet crash, a standard that entered popular culture when Dustin Hoffman’s character in the 1988 film Rainman insisted it was the only airline he would fly.
More than three decades later, a key question is whether Qantas has lost its safety edge after repeated cost-cutting and job cuts under chief executive Alan Joyce, or has just been unlucky in the past week.
However, the latest problems have put Australia’s biggest airline under scrutiny once again, months after it has dealt with an embarrassing cycle of cancellations, delays and baggage losses. Joyce, who has built a reputation for cutting costs to deliver bumper profits during his 14 years in charge, is once again being blamed for the airline’s woes on social media.
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He has become such a lightning rod for online vitriol these days that a cockpit warning light or a smoky oven in the cabin can set off calls for his resignation.
“There’s that craziness that consumers have every time this happens — are they spending enough on maintenance?” said Natalie McKenna, lecturer in strategic communication at La Trobe University in Melbourne. “Absolutely reputational damage. I think customers are starting to turn away from Qantas.
The Qantas group, which includes low-cost airline Jetstar, averages about 60 mid-air turnbacks each year, which means it will typically have one every six days. There have been at least four in the last five days.
The near-turn frequency inevitably prompts criticism that Qantas’ planes are rapidly showing their age. The airline’s domestic workhorse is the Boeing Co. 737, many of which are more than 20 years old. Qantas is renewing its Australian fleet over the next decade with jets manufactured by Airbus SE.
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According to Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association federal secretary Steve Porvinas, the unrelated nature of last week’s events shows there is no systemic problem at Qantas. “It’s just a series of events that happened to be close together,” he said. But the age of the fleet doesn’t help matters, he added.
“It would be better for everyone if the aircraft were a little newer,” Porvinas said. “The older the parts, the more likely they are to fail.”
For now, the airline has the backing of Australia’s aviation regulator. In a statement, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority said it believed Qantas was operating safely and had confidence in its safety management systems.
“Australia has one of the safest aviation industries in the world and passengers should have confidence when flying,” CASA said.
Investors are also helpless. The stock is up nearly 10 percent this month, near its highest level in three years.
Speaking on local radio on Monday, Qantas Domestic CEO Andrew David said there was no problem with the airline.
“Our pilots are always trained to err on the side of caution,” David said. . When we look at the overall health of our fleet, we are very, very, very satisfied that our fleet is in good, healthy condition.”