Qantas Airways has a reputation for safety. It’s aircraft have not fallen from the sky for over 50 years. This fact was brought to wide public attention in the movie RainMan and is a fact that most Australians take pride in.
Airlines do not promote themselves on the basis of their safety record principally because it is a high-risk strategy that can be ruined by just one crash.
In late-July 2008 Qantas Airways had a very lucky escape when, according to current reports, an oxygen cylinder exploded and tore a hole in the fuselage of a plan flying over South East Asia. Ben Sandilands in the Sunday Age rightly points out that lives were saved because the pilot was able to undertake an emergency landing at the nearby Manila airport.
In The Sunday Age 27 July 2008 (not available online), Sandilands pointed out that Qantas often flies on long routes over the sea such as Melbourne to Los Angeles, or over Antarctica on its Argentinean route. Had the fuselage damage occurred on one of these routes:
“The pilots would have been forced to choose between risking a potentially catastrophic mid-air break-up versus a crash landing or ditching.”
Qantas does not advertise on its safety record but its continuing success is partly attributed to that record. The avoidance of disaster from this recent episode is a combination of luck and good management. Qantas executives can do little about luck but it does need to maintain its good management and be seen to do so.
Relocating maintenance tasks to Malaysia may make sound economic sense, perhaps moreso in times of extremely high fuel prices, but national pride in a national airline should not be underestimated.
An exploding oxygen bottle is firming as the cause of the hole in the fuselage. However other issues are being raised as another Qantas plane had problems overnight. An undercarriage door would not close complete and Qantas flight needed to return to Adelaide. Passengers were understandable a little more concerned than usual.
Several of the articles referenced in this blog include complaints by passengers that oxygen masks failed to work or could not be fitted. Qantas has said that inspections of masks are included in maintenance schedules and it may be a significant factor that it seems to be an oxygen bottle that exploded however the Australian Transport Safety Bureau has asked for passengers to contact it if they had such problems.
Editorials are appearing in which the importance of safety to the longevity of an airline (as well as the passengers) is being emphasised. The Age newspaper on 29 July 2008 said that
An airline’s future is its good name. Qantas has for decades thrived on its reputation. Alan Joyce has the challenge before him to continue that tradition.
(Alan Joyce is the incoming chief executive officer.)