Rare impact photo of an ocean ditching, Pan Am in the Pacific in 1956. Everyone lived.


There might be a sense of relief in Qantas today that the media focus has shifted from how it is shafting the business and its employees to the supposedly secret royal funding of Etihad or the not yet actually happening removal of ceiling mounted life rafts in its Boeing 737s.

Neither of these new issues, while variously interesting and relevant to safety regulation will on their own change the trajectory of events at Qantas.

Etihad is owned by the Abu Dhabi ruling family, and it also owns 21.24 percent of Virgin Australia,  and according to reports received access to a $3 billion loan from ‘the shareholder’ three years ago, with no repayments due until 2027.

To recap, the owners of Etihad are prepared to put another $3 billion into it. How dare they? Etihad is book ended by sovereign owned Qatar Airways to its west, and Emirates just up the desert motorway to its east. With neighbors with airlines like that, there is a compelling logic in the owners of Etihad making sure that every dirham it has invested in that airline doesn’t vanish without trace in the three way competitive tussle in the Middle East.

It isn’t something that is going to seal the fate of Qantas, which rests in hands much closer to home. When people depict this as something  that Australian aviation policy settings need to ‘level’  it is fair to ask to what extent attention is being deflected from Qantas giving away much of its Australian access to London, the rest of Europe, central Asia and much of Africa and the Middle East to the world’s largest sovereign owned airline Emirates? For free!

If this team Qantas was out there on a level playing field today and it got the ball it would hand it back to the opposing team and give them great big sloppy kisses all around.

There is a similar problem of loss of focus in the story about 737 life rafts started by independent SA Senator Nick Xenophon. The rafts referred to aren’t required for flights that remain within 720 kilometres of land. The last time Plane Talking gave oxygen to this story it was blasted by some cabin attendants for not understanding the drawbacks of the bulky rafts, which were to be unlocked and removed from the ceiling and deployed only after the passengers had bolted through the exits onto the forward set of slides or onto the wing.

The history of the roof rafts is that they made sense when Boeing 737s might have been configured with less than 120 seats and seldom flew full anywhere in the days of regulation, high fares, and low passenger loads.  The task of getting around 180 people out of the cram packed confines of 737-800s today is much more pressing than dithering around with dropping, ejecting and inflating full sized rafts that do not immediately appear to have been used in any such mid-ocean evacuation of such an airliner.

The most controversial cabin raft decision of recent times was Qantaslink removing the floor mounted rafts from the high wing Dash 8 turboprops used on flights to Lord How Island.  But even in that case, there were significant issues with those rafts in place, or removed.

In fact the more the situation that confronts a high winged airliner ditched in a Pacific swell is contemplated, the less the enthusiasm for flying that route, which is a shame in that Lord Howe Island is a precious, lovely, and very satisfying place to visit.

The real issues that need focus in Qantas involve its management, not its legal evacuation procedures, or a competitor being fractionally owned by a Middle East airline that faces its own competitive pressures, and needs a rich and engaged shareholder if it is to prosper.

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