LONDON – Qantas has defended itself after the national broadcaster ABC aired a story on its Four Corners program revealing insider views of the airlines aggressive cost cutting policies and their potential to compromise air safety.
After Four Corners aired the segment on Monday night entitled “Flight Risk”, the airline, clearly on the defensive, wasted no time in immediately posting a rebuttal of the show’s claims on its website.
The fall of the Flying Kangaroo
Both domestically and internationally, the Qantas brand has been iconic for decades. For Aussies, it is part of the cultural fabric of the nation – as Australian as Vegemite, backyard barbeques and kangaroos.
Internationally, its almost unblemished safety record has been held in the highest esteem. And this makes the trajectory that the Australian flag carrier has taken in more recent times under the Alan Joyce regime all the more disappointing.
The Four Corners’ report is shocking. It beginning with tales of lost luggage and cancelled flights. On the face of it, one could forgive the airline these problems, pointing to similar stories which are being told around the world as airlines struggle to recover from the two-year global pandemic hiatus.
Only there appears to be another far more sinister layer to the Qantas story, if you listen to the accounts of the insiders.
An aggressive attitude
At the heart of Qantas’ current problems is the fact that the airline embarked on an aggressive policy of cutting costs and reducing staff. Accusations have been levelled at high level executive ranks, claiming these policies have undermined the company.
In addition, the aggressive stance taken up by CEO Alan Joyce has not only been levelled at staff, but at Qantas customers also.
Post-pandemic, Joyce was quick to defend the airline, saying problems were not the fault of Qantas. as if that wasn’t enough, he then went on to blame Qantas passengers, saying they were not “match fit” for travel after the long Covid travel restrictions!
The failure of Qantas outsourcing
After sacking 1,700 ground staff, Qantas took up an outsourcing strategy which insiders claim has “backfired spectacularly”.
One pilot said that 50% of the delays were due to ground staff mishandling. Ground services have been contracted out to several service providers, who are often using inexperienced staff.
This has allegedly led to situations where outsourced staff have used improper loading procedures, with one case cited where a serious error in loading was only picked up at the last minute.
The correct placement of cargo and baggage when loading an aircraft is critical. The safety consequences of such a error – resulting in incorrect balance and weight distribution on the aircraft – could be dire.
But the blame cannot be all placed at the feet of the outsourced workers. Insiders revealed that contracted staff have been forced to perform ground handling tasks with less staff members than what Qantas would ordinarily employ to do the job. And using inexperienced staff who are struggling with a workload ordinarily performed by a larger number of more experienced personnel is a recipe for failure.
In the response to these claims, Qantas posted the following to its website – essentially saying that in the case of the incorrectly loaded aircraft, the fact that the error was picked up before departure shows that the safety system is working:
[ABC Four Corners] We’ve been told of an incident whereby employees working for a ground handling contractor loaded bags incorrectly onto a Qantas plane.
The bags that should have been at the back went in the front and vice versa, that this was only realised just before the cargo door closed, which has caused concern among Qantas employees from a safety perspective. Are you aware of this and what’s your response?
[Qantas] Based on the limited information that 4 Corners has provided about this incident, it appears that the load supervisor identified the error and the baggage was loaded correctly before the aircraft departed.
This shows a safety management system that is working and designed to capture human error through multiple fail safes. Incidents like this occurred when the work was done in house, the only difference is the TWU (Transport Workers Union) chose not to publicise them.
The concern for air safety
In addition to inexperienced ground handlers, other safety critical areas are also under strain. Pilots who spoke out stated they are working long hours under stressful conditions.
Engineering and maintenance staff tell the same story, claiming fewer staff are handling what has become a very high workload. Again, Qantas refute this claim in the recent response on their website, rejecting safety concerns as a “baseless claim”:
[ABC Four Corners] Staff and union officials have told us that a combination of factors including inexperienced ground handling staff, staff shortages, and flight delays resulting in increase in hours and fatigue, is giving rise to concerns about safety. What’s your response?
[Qantas] We completely reject baseless and generalised safety claims from these unions, who have a history of playing the safety card to further their industrial agendas.
We operate in one of the most closely regulated industries in Australia and are subject to considerable oversight from numerous authorities, including CASA. We have an established safety management system for managing all aspects of safety, including fatigue.
Warning from the Licenced Aircraft Maintenance Engineers Assoc
The LAMEA also claim they warned Qantas about the potential dangers of a cut in engineering staff, saying that staff are now struggling to finish their workload each night. This means that maintenance crews are prioritising, and shedding less urgent tasks.
Again, the potential for oversight of something serious is a major concern. Qantas again dismiss these claims:
[ABC Four Corners] The Licensed Aircraft Maintenance Engineers Association and various employees say that aircraft engineering staff numbers are down by up to 35% on pre-Covid levels, that the result is that they are struggling to get through planned maintenance, and that the risk of mistakes has increased. How do you respond?
[Qantas] We require less engineers than we had pre-COVID as our maintenance requirements are much lower. This is due to the fact we are flying less (international capacity is at ~60%), have seven less A380s in service than pre-COVID and retired one of the most maintenance-intensive part of our fleet in the 747s.
A recipe for disaster?
The picture which the ABC Four Corners report presents is concerning. Accident analysis shows us that accidents rarely result from one single error. Rather, a long chain of events and potential weak links characterise and accident or disaster scenario.
Qantas appear to be showing these characteristic traits right now – inexperienced ground handling staff, tired aircrew, maintenance staff overstretched, poor morale, tired and frustrated workers.
Hopefully a major incident will not eventuate. Nonetheless, the drop in general customer service has been noticeable, with many taking to social media to vent frustrations. Four Corners reporter Louise Milligan even experienced a dose of the poor service for herself after the show’s report was aired:
You can view the entire ABC Four Corners segment online here: