The right and middle panels of interest on 737 windscreens, seen here on a simulator
The right and middle panels of interest on 737 windscreens, seen here on a simulator

The allegations about the Qantas 737 flown with a cracked windscreen early in February that are the centre of yet another safety controversy concerning the airline have run into a major problem with the media.

That is, a need for all black or all white reporting, all within a brief ‘tidy’ report that says ‘Qantas bad’, since ‘Qantas good’ isn’t news.

But the truth, as so far established, isn’t tidy. And it isn’t unequivocally ‘good Qantas’ or ‘bad Qantas’, or for that matter ‘good union’ or ‘bad union.’

It is in fact, an untidy mess, and no-one looks very good at all, at least at this stage.

Let’s start with the context. There has been since November 13 an industrial dispute between Qantas and the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers of Australia.

The union wants more money. A desire it shares in common with Qantas and 99.9% of the rest of Australia. So far, it hasn’t managed to cut a deal, even though most of its members are refusing to oversee maintenance work outside office hours in Australia.

For context, a blow up of a Gordon Reid photograph of a QF 737-800
For context, a blow up of a Gordon Reid photograph of a QF 737-800

Over a week ago APESMA revealed that it had written to CASA, the air safety regulator, detailing a number of claimed safety breaches by Qantas by non-member managers standing in for its members and making mistakes.

CASA in turn found the issues worthy of investigation, and apparently expects to resolve at least some of them in the near future.

However what the union didn’t draw attention to was that every morning its members peer review and approve, disapprove or recommend the rectification as required of the engineering oversight decisions made by or for Qantas in the previous 24 hours.

Which means that EVERYTHING Qantas has done has, within a day, been signed off by APESMA members.

Enter the cracked windscreen panel on a Qantas 737-800 on February 7. Boeing 737 cockpit windows are crack prone, so potentially seriously crack prone that there are several airworthiness directives or ADs in force that impose a regime of inspections or replacements. (All jets have potentially serious issues somewhere, the current shtick for 737s is cockpit windows, so no need to say I ain’t goin’ if its Boeing.)

A licensed Qantas mechanic took a look at this particular 737 in accordance with the AD and noticed a ‘blemish’. He reported it to an APESMA member who disagreed with the work bans and who was working outside hours, and who in turn authorised the deferral of the replacement of the windscreen panel until it reached its base in Melbourne, the following night.

Point. The continuation of the ‘unsafe’ situation was approved by an APESMA member.

The next day, APESMA peer reviewed this decision, overruled the decision of its member and urged Qantas to immediately replace the ‘blemished’ window pane. As soon as the jet landed at Canberra airport, prior to its last flight of the day, to Melbourne, it was grounded pending the replacement of the unsatisfactory part, which had been flown north from the Qantas 737 maintenance base to meet it.

Qantas maintains that it was fully compliant with the AD. This certainly puts it in an unusual position in relation to other 737 operators, who are understood to interpret the bit about not flying with a damaged windscreen pane as meaning, incredibly, do not fly with a damaged windscreen pane.

The devil is in the fine print. The AD mandates a detailed inspection of the windows every 6000 hours, or about once every 18 months in Qantas use of the type. It also refers to the need for regular visual checks and defines tolerable delamination limits around the edges of some of the panels, but says that if a defect in the pane is detected it must be immediately replaced, at which point the inspection interval countdown begins afresh and a full inspection is next required 6000 hours flight time later.

The fact is that what Qantas saw as a situation that was tolerable on the night of February 7 was deemed intolerable on February 8 and the windscreen panel was replaced before the jet continued in service, even though it was a mere 65 minutes block time from its base in Melbourne.

Which raises the untidiness of the whole situation. The professionalism of the professional engineers union Qantas relies upon whether it is engaged in work bans or not is now under a cloud.

The safety outcomes at Qantas are under a cloud, notwithstanding an earnest and dedicated effort under CEO Alan Joyce to rectify past errors.

And all eyes are on CASA, or should be, which means no-one in the government, nor opposition or some sections of the media is actually looking, although Steve Creedy at The Australian is looking, and broke the union side of the story first.

In the developed aviation world Qantas would almost certainly attract enforcement action. This might yet happen.

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