Editor's column by Louise Driscoll

Is the Qantas brand damaged beyond repair?

The media is keeping Qantas in the frame over 'safety issues' based on a rising number of reported mid-air turnarounds - but can it recover?


Since Qantas announced in 2007 it would outsource some aircraft maintenance to overseas facilities, the flying kangaroo has inevitably taken quite a bashing from the media over perceived safety issues. While Qantas doesn’t always deserve the bad press, the airline perhaps only has itself to blame for the erosion of its brand – and needs to reach out to the public directly with effective crisis communication, or risk losing our trust in the brand altogether. By Louise Driscoll

Qantas’s announcement that it will put two of six A380s back into service (initially on a dry run without passengers) on Saturday Nov 27, is promising news, after its engines passed extensive safety tests.

The checks are part of the Australian national carrier’s “hospital line”: essentially a programme to fix or replace problematic Trent-900 engines on its double decker fleet. Those engines on its four other A380s are still having a thorough check-up.

It has become clear that the uncontained A380 engine explosion on November 4 was not a Qantas maintenance issue, but a Rolls Royce one. But that hasn’t stopped the hungry pack of wolves in the mainstream media from fleshing out details of one Qantas ‘safety issue’ after another in the days and weeks after the incident.

Just 24 hours after the world turned its gaze to potential engine problems with the A380, Qantas was back in the spotlight and appearing troubled, as the news broke that one of its jumbos was forced to turn back to Singapore Changi after a “contained engine failure”. The engine model on this plane was not a trent-900 – but still, the media naturally started asking questions.

On Nov 12, Qantas made international airwaves when a Melbourne-bound flight returned to Perth after pilots reported a vibration in the number one engine of a 767. While the airline boss, Alan Joyce said it was a “minor issue that happens hundreds, if not thousands of times, around the world each year,” the Sydney Morning Herald’s headline suggested otherwise: “Qantas plays down latest mid-air incident.”

Then, on Nov 15, we heard reports of smoke in the cockpit of a QF17 flight from Sydney to Buenos Aires, later confirmed as an “electrical fault in the cockpit.”

On Nov 16, a Qantas 717 from Alice Springs to Darwin was struck by lightning. A Qantas safety problem? Not at all. But it was enough bait for the media to strike again. A report in The Australian tailed off with: “Qantas has faced a string of hitches since a Qantas A380 superjumbo was forced to make an emergency landing in Singapore earlier this month.”

So is Qantas really one of the few ‘statistically safe’ airlines to suffer from what’s being reported as a string of safety-related incidents?

And is it really fair for the media to link in our minds what has become a serious engine safety issue on the A380, with Qantas’s list of unrelated mid-air turnarounds?

The Brisbane Times even recently reported that a “missing screw delayed a Qantas flight from Sydney to Melbourne by an hour, while a QantasLink flight to Sydney from Coffs Harbour was delayed by five hours after a warning light indicated a problem with the engines as it came in to land.” Too trival perhaps to be giving Qantas more airtime?

On Nov 17, a Qantas 747 that had to turn back to Johannesburg airport after a bird strike damaged one of its engines made global news. Again, not a Qantas safety issue. So why is the media seemingly tallying up every ‘incident’ on the flying kangaroo and sharing it with the world?

The hysteria appears to show a chronic mistrust by the media of Qantas’ assurances on safety – and it’s starting to leave scars in the minds of the travelling public – who have always been assured of Qantas’ impeccable safety record: it hasn’t lost a jet airliner or had any jet fatalities.

On the one hand, Qantas is telling us it is one of the world’s safest airlines – and on the other, the media is over-reporting every in-flight technicality. A balance needs to be struck here between reporting significant safety issues that are in the public interest to know and turnarounds caused by technicalities that are common in the airline world.

tally-against-qantas

The media continues to keep a firm tally of all Qantas incidents

If success of a brand is linked to reputation, it is arguably not the airline that has landed itself in intensive care, but the brand.

Perhaps Qantas only has itself to blame? Unlike many major airlines which have fully embraced social media, Qantas seems disconnected from its customers and is not reaching out to us directly to manage what has become a crisis of confidence in the airline.

2007 was a turning point in Qantas’s brand, after announcing it would outsource some of its aircraft maintenance to facilities in Asia, including Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines. It was a bitter pill to swallow for the 450 Sydney-based engineers, who were to lose their jobs as the airline went in hot pursuit of cheap, foreign labour.

Since the announcement, the iconic kangaroo brand has been battered and left bruised by the media.

In 2008, the airline suffered two incidents that I would deem to be ‘serious’ and in the public interest to report:

The first: a Qantas 747 landed safely after an oxygen cyclinder ruptured mid-air, tearing a hole in the plane’s fuselage and causing a rapid decompression in the cabin. While the official findings of that investigation have only come to light this week: that it was a “very rare, one-off event,” public opinion has been swayed (in part by the media’s scrutiny of the event) to believe that Qantas has jettisoned its commitment to maintenance.

And in October 2008, a Qantas A330-300 travelling from Singapore to Perth reportedly experienced an unexpected altitude change, causing the plane to fall 1000ft – injuring dozens of passengers.

It is in these, serious cases that Qantas needs to put a stop to feeding the media with press releases (allowing speculation to creep into news reports), and instead become accountable to the passenger directly: by communicating with us via twitter or facebook.

I also feel the media needs more perspective in its coverage of Qantas, which is not on any ‘blacklist’ of airlines that are not permitted into a country over safety issues.

But like any airline who wants to keep its reputation, Qantas needs to ensure it upholds the highest safety standards – whether outsourcing part of its maintenance or not.

The carrier also operates around 565 flights a day or 370 international flights a week – so if we do the maths, Qantas is still a safe bet, unless its planes start falling out of the sky.

Louise

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