Business, Finance & Economics

Qantas PR problem worsens with industrial, mechanical woes


Qantas planes, with flying kangaroo tailfins, line Sydney airport — more so now that pilots and engineers are striking.


Torsten Blackwood

Qantas — as anyone who saw "Rainman" would know, the safest airline in the world — is proving a little accident prone on the PR front.

A bad week got a whole lot worse for Australia's national carrier overnight when a Sydney-bound Qantas 747 was forced to turn back to Bangkok with engine problems.

A bang was heard, and the plane began vibrating — never a good sign.

The pilot reportedly turned off one of the four engines and flew the plane, carrying 356 passengers, safely back at Bangkok airport, where passengers were treated (according to local TV stations, quoting Twitter posts) to some upscale "please, please, please fly with us again" accommodation.

Earlier in the week, the airline — symbolized by an aerodynamic-looking kangaroo on the tailfins of its planes — faced criticism for losing track of an unaccompanied boy, 11, and misplaced the paperwork involving his flight to Hobart. The News Limited has the full story (including the airline's woefully inadequate customer relations effort — under the headline: "Qantas loses boy. Sorry, here's a travel voucher." You get the idea.)

And to think that these incidents aren't the worst of the Qantas PR department's problems.

The carrier is locked in an industrial dispute with its workers and has grounded five aircraft indefinitely, while canceling scores of flights daily and warning of another 400 flight cancelations over the next month.

As the Sydney Morning Herald puts it, Qantas "is battling union disputes on three fronts, with engineers, ground staff and pilots all stepping up their campaigns for better pay and conditions."

Now in Australia, at least (the deadly 2009 commuter airplane crash near Buffalo, N.Y. in 2009 made us all sadly aware of how underpaid U.S. pilots can be, and of the tragic consequences), when a pilot complains he isn't being paid enough, even occasional fliers take notice — and probably get a little nervous.

At heart, the Qantas dispute is about paying the pilots of cutprice airlines owned and operated by Qantas — Jetstar and JetConnect — the same wages and conditions as Qantas pilots.

Down Under — booked on a Jetstar flight to Sydney next week — is inclined to agree.

However, Qantas has come out swinging.

Qantas spokeswoman Olivia Wirth told reporters on Monday that the pilots' claims were unreasonable: "We are very much committed to these negotiations, however this one claim makes it very difficult for negotiations to make any headway and make any progress," she told ABC radio.

She said that if Qantas were to agree to the claim, it would drive up airfares for customers. "It would also risk jobs for all other employees at Qantas," she said.

Okay, but to be honest the only jobs we care about are the ones that keep the planes in the air.  

The grounding of the indefinite grounding of five aircraft has been blamed on a maintenance backlog, in turn blamed on striking maintenance engineers.

And so we come back to a Qantas jet that, midair, experiences apparent engine troubles.  

Enough said.

Although we're happy to give Qantas the final word — to ensure that anyone traveling in the vicinity of ... Australia in the next little while can make an informed choice. 

"About one hour after take-off, there was a bang and some vibrations were felt through the aircraft,'' a Qantas spokesman said of the Bangkok-Sydney flight, reports.

The spokeswoman reportedly added that engineers (those still working) had identified the probable cause as one of the aircraft's Rolls-Royce RB211 engines.