Qantas Mayday Alert, Flight Turnbacks Put Safety Reputation Under Spotlight

Qantas Airways Ltd., the airline whose stellar safety record was made famous by Hollywood, is back in the spotlight after a flurry of mechanical malfunctions.

The Australian airline has been hit by a spate of in-flight issues since the middle of last week, starting with a mayday alert and engine shutdown on a plane from Auckland to Sydney. At least four aircraft have since turned around because of problems with wing flaps, warning indicator lights or fumes in the cabin. The planes all landed safely.

The series of incidents is particularly wounding for an airline that has built — and touted — a reputation for safety. Qantas has never suffered a fatal jet accident, a benchmark that entered popular culture when Dustin Hoffman’s character in the 1988 movie 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 cuts and job losses under Chief Executive Officer Alan Joyce, or has simply been unlucky in the past week.

Either way, the recent problems have put Australia’s largest airline under scrutiny again, months after it appeared to have resolved an embarrassing run of cancellations, delays and baggage losses. Joyce, who has forged a reputation for shredding expenses to deliver bumper profits during his 14 years in charge, is once more being blamed on social media for the airline’s woes.

He’s become such a lightning rod for online vitriol these days that a single cockpit warning light or a smoky oven in the cabin can end up reigniting calls for his resignation.

There is not a company in Australia more in need of a change in leadership & direction than Qantas
— Sally McManus (@sallymcmanus) Jan. 20, 2023

“There’s that cynicism that customers have every time something like this happens — are they spending enough on maintenance?” said Natalie McKenna, a lecturer in strategic communication at La Trobe University in Melbourne. “There is 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 would typically have one every six days. There have been at least four in the past five days.

The frequency of the about-turns inevitably fuels criticism that Qantas’ aircraft are increasingly showing their age. The airline’s domestic workhorse is the Boeing Co. 737, many of which are over 20 years old. Qantas is renewing its Australian fleet over the next decade with jets made by Airbus SE.

According to Steve Purvinas, federal secretary of the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association, the unrelated nature of the events of the past week indicate there’s not a systemic problem at Qantas. “It’s just a series of events that are close together by coincidence,” he said. But the age of the fleet doesn’t help matters, he added.

“It would be preferable to everyone if the aircraft were a little bit newer,” Purvinas said. “The older the parts are, 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’s “confident Qantas is operating safely and has confidence in its safety management systems.”

“Australia has one of the safest aviation industries in the world and travelers should have confidence when they fly,” CASA said.

Investors are also nonplussed. The stock has risen almost 10% this month to be trading near its highest in three years.

Speaking on local radio on Monday, Qantas Domestic CEO Andrew David said there are no issues at the airline.

“Our pilots are trained always to err on the side of caution,” David said. “I’d be more worried about the airlines that don’t turn back than the airlines that do in those situations. When we look at our overall fleet health condition, we are very, very, very satisfied our fleet are in good, healthy condition.”

Copyright 2023 Bloomberg.


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