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.