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Real issues behind Qantas maintenance job loss claims

There is a need for reasoned discussion about new technology and job losses at Qantas following today’s announcements of net losses of 400 (or more) engineering or maintenance positions.

The announcement seems to track closely on earlier guidance from Qantas. The highest profile union response so far has come from the licensed engineers association, the ALAEA, which says the loss of skilled positions at Qantas makes the airline less safe.

Two matters need to be kept in mind.

Qantas is right in that new technology requires less (and different) maintenance than before as newer jets enter its fleet. The ALAEA is right to pose questions about safety, and in its comments today made reference to a number of examples of declining maintenance standards at Qantas, without specifically linking them to work done offshore, which whether they occurred offshore on onshore, are of concern even though Qantas made an equally non-specific denial of those claims.

What might the public make of these issues?

The debate about reduced in-house maintenance and the desire of carriers to contract that work out to engineering and overhaul organisations claiming specialised skills and lower costs reflecting higher efficiency is one that is more advanced in the US than it is here.

The big concern in America, where it has been discussed in public by air safety officials and politicians for some time, is that as airlines move to lower their maintenance costs they must not be permitted to lower their accountability for maintenance outcomes, which is what the ALAEA is driving at.

Tied up with this concern is the ‘loss of control factor’. When airlines send work to a contractor, who in some cases is the engine maker or aircraft maker, they can become the last people to know about a problem.

Qantas was the last to know that there were serious problems with the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines that were on its A380s, even though Rolls-Royce knew about it, and did not tell Qantas about it, and was fixing it in its own sweet time, when one of them disintegrated on a flight that had just departed from Singapore for Sydney in November 2010.  Qantas had signed off on a power by the hour deal for the engines that looked terrific on the books, that took away from it vital control over something that was of critical importance to its brand value and the safety of its customers, which was engine integrity. What then happened is now part of aviation legend, and through the skill of its pilots, not a part of a tragic legend.

However the answer to such ‘loss of control’ issues may not be one that the ALAEA would welcome.

If Qantas or any other airline, was to give up some of the savings it is sold on by third party maintenance providers, and insist on diligent and informed oversight, which it totally failed to do in relation to the engines on its A380s, it would not only meet its regulatory obligations to CASA, but to its customers, and avoid exposing them to the risk of a disaster of the size of the one that threatened to destroy a fully loaded A380 totally out of the blue.

The lesson for all airlines in the lower maintenance and outsourced engineering realities of new technology jets is to ‘keep control’, ‘keep responsible for the outcomes’ and save on the costs of maintenance to the extent that is possible after meeting those obligations.

In that sense, much of the commentary from Qantas on reduced maintenance needs is less nuanced than it should be.  Qantas needs to do more than assert that safety isn’t being compromised. It needs to prove it.

In the US where some airlines have hundreds of 737s or A320s in service, they have a scale and depth of excellence and experience in maintaining those jets that makes them better and more efficient at those tasks than any third party company, which means there is much less, if any, temptation to outsource.

Qantas, unfortunately, doesn’t have such scale, and hasn’t shown much evidence in recent years of valuing the retention of such engineering capabilities.

What this means is that as the engineering and maintenance skills of the past are liquidated in the present, and used to pay managerial bonuses and prop up the books, the focus on Qantas should be on insisting that the standards of such work done on its airliners should exceed the minimums that are considered ‘world’s best practice’ by a weak and compromised Australian safety regulator, and should continue to set the ‘world’s highest’ standards, no matter where the work is done.

If it is held to those standards, Qantas may well find that doing the work in Australia is the best solution of all.

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  • 1
    CHEE KUEN LEONG
    Posted November 10, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    One way to let QF engineering & maintenance be competitive is for it to be independent. Compete for jobs on a level playing field like other MROs. Then the LAMEs will realise their productivity does not match their pay. They still think QF owes them a living. I guess the first thing to happen is a trimming of LAME salary.

  • 2
    William Tyndale
    Posted November 12, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Ben for an interesting article. Your last paragraph or so gets to the point of the community worry about Qantas’s reputation, that CASA seems to have an extremely small role in ensuring that maintenance and operational standards are at the highest level, maybe rather than ‘world’s best practise,’ which conjures up in some of our minds that it’s probably a lesser standard.
    The ALAEA constantly gets air time pushing the falling safety line. Many of us tend to agree with this sort of thinking to varying degrees as we do worry where this is all heading. Nobody wishes fatalities to be the price of finding the level of ‘world’s most economical practise’ and then make corrections to get back up the curve a bit. But by the same token I see that there are unrealistic expectations, to revert to the good old days when all was safe and good. Could the real pressure the ALAEA is feeling is because of diminishing membership levels in this country?
    As you say Ben, and the leprechaun says it too, modern aircraft have proved to be more reliable and therefore require less maintenance. I don’t think anybody would even think about Qantas, or any other sizeable airline, maintaining a good safety record and make a profit if they had a fleet of B707′s. Look at the differences we’ve seen between the original B747′s, the B747-400′s and now the B747-8′s. On the domestic front similar comparisons can be made with B737-200′s, B737-400′s and the latest B737-800′s. The next big step is with the B787 where the plastic body should enable what is now about a 5 year commercial usage between D checks pushed out to 12 to 15 years.
    If you must, the comparison of the A300 with the A330 and the A380 is also chalk and cheese.
    What goes hand in hand with reliability very often is fleet expansion. A new fleet is easier to handle usually from all aspects of the airline operation. Oh, and they’re more efficient, fly further, are cheaper to run and don’t pollute so much.
    Then comes the raw costs. Why do so many airlines buy their aircraft and agree that the manufacturer remains responsible for the ongoing major routine maintenance tasks, eg: C and D checks? Because this saves a huge amount of money in not having to build infrastructure and their employee base. Similarly engine manufacturers are keen to sell their engines then make a charge by the hour. Yes we saw that come unstuck with the QF32 incident but that has caused both engine and airframe manufacturers to build in networks etc., where the applicable airlines have the information to properly fit with their systems of maintenance which the likes of CASA have approved for them.
    It should also be mentioned what is the Qantas safety record in these modern times? Are they so alone at the front of the pack that others can’t possibly emulate them? Years ago Qantas management would shy away from even thinking about advertising their superior safety record (tempting fate I think might have been the real reason.) The facts are that Qantas hasn’t lost a hull or had a fatality since the pure jet era. Since it’s beginnings QF have had 40 fatalities, the last being a DHA-3 lost in PNG, 16.07.1951 with a loss of 7 lives. There were 32 more lives lost but they were aircraft shot out of the sky during WWII whilst flying for the RAAF. The last hull loss was a Super Constellation at Mauritius, 24.08.1960.
    If you wish to include the long time record of the domestic arm of Qantas, which is so revered as the money making machine holding the airline together, admittedly there has not been a loss of life or hull since the king rat has been painted on the tail, but their history is a total of 44 lives lost, the last coinciding with their last hull loss of a DHC-6 in Mt Hagan, 28.04.1970 with a loss of 8 lives.
    The real crunch is that since 1951, or 1970, there is a multitude of airlines around the world who have not suffered a hull loss or loss of life. This result is due to many things but better design and certification, better authority (CASA) control, better training, better operations, better ATC, and so the list goes on, have all contributed. So, can you say, by stealth sometimes, that having more highly paid LAME’s on the job in Australia is the key to maintaining Qantas’s safety record?

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