Unprecedented review to be held on Qantas after third emergency in two weeks

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) has announced it will take the unprecedented step of conducting a special review of flag carrier Qantas after three separate emergencies in two weeks.

In the latest incident, a Boeing 767 headed from Sydney to Manila was forced to turn back yesterday after ground staff at the airport noticed what they believed to be smoke emanating from the jet’s wing as it departed. It turned out to be fine spray from a hydraulic fluid leak, and the aircraft brought its 200 passengers back down safely at around 3:00 p.m., with ARFF trucks on standby.

Despite the aircraft being forced to turn around, the pilot did not request a priority landing and so Qantas refused to describe the event as an emergency landing.

Qantas has a largely good safety record, having never lost a jet aircraft or had a fatality on board one. Their last fatal accident was in 1951. However, recently two other events have led to some questioning of Qantas from within the aviation industry.

Last Monday, a Qantas Boeing 737-800 returned to Adelaide after experiencing pressurization problems caused by the failure of an undercarriage door to retract properly. This followed the July 25 accident on board Flight 30, a Boeing 747 headed from London to Melbourne that had just made a stopover in Hong Kong, in which an exploding oxygen cylinder caused an explosive decompression. An emergency landing was performed in Manila, with a hole blown in the aircraft’s side.

According to Qantas staff, the problems are not a new thing. Qantas flight attendants have asked senior management for an emergency meeting over these latest events. The Flight Attendants’ Association of Australia’s president Steven Reed said “We want some assurances from the company that these are isolated incidents. Or are they something we should be concerned about? We need to meet with the company at a senior level to have these assurances.” Such a meeting is said to be likely within a week.

Qantas engineers have been complaining for some time about maintenance issues, saying that cost-cutting and outsourcing are compromising the quality of maintenance. Much work is now being done in countries such as Hong Kong, Malaysia and the Philippines. According to one engineering union official, recent incidents linked to outsourced maintenance include a failure of emergency lighting and flight attendants in the galley being electrocuted by faulty wiring.

According to the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers’ Association’s assistant federal secretary, Wayne Vasta, there has been a recent “change in culture” at Qantas, although he did say it would be inappropriate to blame only outsourcing. He said that while previously Qantas engineers had simply attempted to do the best they could, “Now it appears we have got to do the best job we can possibly do, within a budget.” He also expressed a welcoming of the CASA probe.

Qantas’ engineers are currently lobbying for a pay rise, and say the airline is risking safety with cost cuts.

Peter Gibson, spokesperson for CASA, said no trouble had been spotted in recent safety audits of Qantas, but they felt it ‘prudent’ to investigate given the recent string of incidents. He acknowledged that the review is unprecedented in CASA’s history, and announced the probe would be headed by senior official Mick Quinn.

“We want to look at their safety systems to make sure that the systems are operating the way they should. All these things are stated in manuals. We want to make sure that what is in the manuals is being done,” Gibson told reporters. He said the investigation should take around two weeks.

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