Privatisation doesn't fly

January 30, 2010

The Men Who Killed Qantas: Greed, Lies and Crashes and How They Destroyed the Reputation of the World's Safest Airline
By Matthew Benns,
William Heinemann, 2009,
307 pp, $34.95 (pb)

"Welcome to Bangkok", announced the customer service manager to the 410 passengers on board the Qantas Sydney to London flight on 23 September 1999, seconds before the Boeing 747 began aquaplaning down the runway at 300 kph during a torrential thunderstorm, skidding to a halt next to the third hole of the Royal Thai Air Force Golf Course.

This is just one of the growing number of crashes in the history of the "airline that never crashes", says Matthew Benns in The Men Who Killed Qantas.

The 38 injuries that day in Bangkok were a direct result of cost-cutting. The landing over-run, said the Air Traffic Safety Board investigation, would most probably have been avoided if the pilots had been trained to put the engines into maximum reverse thrust with flaps fully open in such emergency landing situations.

But this, says Benns, was a procedure that had been trained out of Qantas pilots to save money. 'Flaps 25' (not 30) and idle (not maximum) reverse thrust was the trained procedure because this would save $1.6 billion on fuel and $700,000 a year on maintenance of the new carbon brakes.

Qantas' dicing with death goes all the way back to the airline's first flight from Sydney to Queensland in 1921, when the bi-plane lost control, forcing an emergency landing alongside a miner's cottage.

Six years later, Qantas had its first fatal accident, followed in 1934 when a four-engined DH86 went into a fatal spin because the captain used the toilet at the rear, upsetting the centre of gravity of the notoriously unstable plane, which had been a rush production job to meet the deadline for a lucrative tender for airmail services.

The crashes kept coming. In 1946, a converted Lancaster bomber on the Sydney to Karachi leg of the Sydney-London run disappeared a thousand kilometres from the Cocos Islands. In 1951, the centre propeller of a De Havilland Drover failed and the plane crashed in waters near Papua New Guinea, capping a build-up of accidents involving the plane's centre propeller.

It is true that Qantas has not had a fatal accident with its jet aircraft. But Qantas' PR claim that it has never had a fatal crash at all is the airline's big lie — 65 passengers and crew were killed in nine fatal accidents up to 1951.

Qantas' safety record during the jet era, however, looks precarious. The number of candidates for fatal crashes accelerated since the airline, which was nationalised by the Chifley Labor Government in 1947, was privatised by the Keating Labor Government in 1992.

In July 2008, there was a dramatic near-miss when the cabin of a London-bound flight suffered sudden depressurisation over the South China Sea after a (poorly maintained) emergency oxygen cylinder exploded and smashed a two-metre-longhole through the fuselage, forcing an emergency landing in Manila.

There were also emergency landings in Bangkok (after a 747 lost all power from its generators, corroded by a leaking drip tray in the galley), in Learmouth in WA (after an Airbus 330 went into a steep plunge, slamming many passengers into the ceiling and dumping them on the floor) and in Guam (after an electrical fault caused a fire in the cockpit window of an Airbus A330).

In Los Angeles, a jumbo jet blew three tyres when landing at Los Angeles. Six Boeing 737s were grounded because of the potential for fatigue cracking in critical areas of the forward pressure bulkhead. A 747 had been flown for a month with engines incorrectly fitted when serviced in Hong Kong.

And all three of the state-of-the-art Airbus A380 planes were grounded for faults in March 2009.

The Qantas engineers' union, the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers' Association, sheeted home the blame for the incidents to a reduction in apprenticeships and to off-shore maintenance outsourcing to countries with inferior standards but lower costs. This view is backed by a damning Qantas internal audit into maintenance at Singapore in 2006.

The chickens of maintenance cost-saving were coming home to roost but Qantas misrepresented the concerns as union "scaremongering" about "minor maintenance issues".

Benns notes that in the old, nationalised days of a good safety culture, broken parts were replaced quickly and parts that were not broken were replaced according to the schedule specified in the manufacturers' manuals. Maintenance standards — and jobs — have become a victim of profit-hunger.

Workplace health for flight and cabin crew is suffering under the silent epidemic of "aerotoxic syndrome". This poisoning by toxic fumes is the result of a cost-cutting design flaw in an ageing passenger jet fleet and inadequate maintenance standards. Because the air outside jets at high altitudes is too cold to pump in directly, the superheated, unfiltered air from inside the jet engine is used, cooled to cabin temperature in an air-conditioning unit. Any oil leak in the engine, however, is also superheated.

Superheated oil breaks down into airborne carcinogens and organophosphates, the latter, with their characteristic pungent odour of blue cheese/old socks/vomit, able to cause nausea, headaches, dizziness, tiredness, nervous system damage, motor neurone diseases, lung damage, chronic fatigue syndrome, chemical hyper-sensitivity and brain damage.

A University of NSW survey of pilots in the early 1990s found that 80% breathed toxicants, 60% suffered short-term effects such as memory loss, while one quarter were no longer able to work.

In 2007-08, Qantas recorded 31 injury reports for toxic fume exposure on 13 different jets. Benns labels this occupational disease "the asbestos of the skies".

The safety of crew and passengers has an unreliable government watchdog in the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), which is seen, says Benns, as being "too close to Qantas".

The airline's maintenance standards are often poorly monitored by CASA, whilst the regulatory practice of letting Qantas check on itself is, unsurprisingly, less than adequate.

Recently retired CEO, Geoff Dixon, got a $12 million "golden parachute" after his reign of cutting back on staff, pay and safety standards.

Benns, a tabloid journalist with the Sun-Herald, can't resist a dig at the "taxpayer-subsidised fat" of the old, nationalised Qantas, and his optimism in the beneficence of new CEO, Alan Joyce (fresh from Jetstar, Qantas' union-busting budget airline), is misplaced.

But Benns' indictment of "profit-seeking cost-cutting", and his dedication to the "tireless Qantas staff and crew who work so professionally to keep passengers and planes safe", makes the book worth reading.

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