Thursday, October 9, 2008

Qantas Incidents Are Symptoms Of A Bigger Problem

Once again, Australia’s favourite airline is in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The spate of adverse incidents over the past several months ranges from the very serious to the relatively routine, but it is the fact that they keep on happening which is really starting to worry people. So, is there something fundamentally wrong at Qantas, or has this just been a run of bad luck?

Not all of the series of incidents have been serious. Some of them have been relatively normal events which have been identified by safety procedures and addressed in an appropriate manner. Those incidents are an example of the system actually working as it should to identify issues before they become threats. At the same time, legitimate concerns have been raised by Qantas engineers about maintenance standards, and the Civil Aviation Safety Authority has found that the airline is guilty of failing to meet its own benchmarks. Those warnings, coupled with the incidents themselves, cannot fail to cause concern in the travelling public.

Now people generally can be a somewhat superstitious crowd, especially when it comes to the unnatural business of flying. At some point, the fears that people have can take over from common sense and every little incident can become another damning piece of evidence. Already, opinion polls are being reported which indicate that 63% of the general public believe that safety standards have fallen at Qantas. Of course, this is only evidence of what people believe, not what might actually be true, but it still has a very real impact on the wellbeing of the company.

Although the official investigation will take some time, as it rightly should, it appears that this week’s dramatic loss of altitude by a Qantas Airbus 330-300 may have been caused by a computer malfunction. It may be the fault of the design, or some other factor. It has even been suggested that a passenger’s laptop may have interfered with the system, as we are so often warned every time we travel. But the explanation is not going to matter to an increasingly worried travelling public.

Whatever the case in this particular event, the bigger picture remains the same. Qantas has suffered a series of embarrassing and potentially dangerous incidents. People have a tendency to believe that where there is smoke there is fire, and they have been told repeatedly by credible observers that standards are not being met. It’s no surprise that public confidence is falling.

There are wider problems in the aviation world, including the shortage of Air Traffic Controllers, and the increasing pressure to cut costs. It all comes back to one central cause: the mistaken belief that the most cost-effective option is the best option. It’s not, and it never will be. Aviation success in the past was built on the wasteful, inefficient, and costly idea of multiple redundancies in systems at every level and over-engineering. The best option is the one where the cost is set by the standard, not where the standard is set by the cost.

That, by the way, is a philosophy which is true for the entire economy, not just aviation.

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