The Qantas obsession won’t end even if a series of events are unconnected

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Perhaps the only place you could escape the news was on the plane itself.

When Qantas flight 144 called for a mayday shortly after leaving Auckland for Sydney on Wednesday, a familiar cycle began that will leave many with a sense of déjà vu: yet another problem with the Qantas flight. But it looked serious.

Within minutes, smartphones began giving mid-air engine failure warnings, and news crews soon gathered at Sydney airport to broadcast the landing. The Australians were able to watch the pilots land on the Boeing 737 with a single engine – the national carrier’s safety record was kept intact.

The pilots did not feel the need to spread panic in the cabin and only informed the passengers of the extent of the engine problems after landing. Passengers looked puzzled as they entered a sea of ​​cameras and reporters in the arrivals hall in Kingsford-Smith.

While the incident was certainly notable – mayday calls are rare on commercial passenger flights, and even rarer in Australia – the response was emblematic of a familiar pattern.

On December 23, Qantas’ trademark QF1, en route from Singapore to London, made an emergency landing in Azerbaijan due to concerns about smoke in the cargo hold. Undoubtedly a major air safety issue, the incident and the stories of those who were stranded as a result were the subject of nightly bulletins for days during the traditionally silent news period during Christmas.

Then on Thursday – after the QF144’s mayday call – a Fiji-bound QF101 returned to Sydney as a precaution after pilots received a message about a possible mechanical problem. On Friday, the QF430 en route from Melbourne to Sydney returned to Tullamarine airport due to minor signs of engine trouble.

Despite rapid reporting – including by Guardian Australia – none of the last two incidents were emergency landings.

Also Friday, media outlets reported that flight QF1516 to Canberra had returned to Melbourne as a precaution due to a problem with its wings.

While Australians have expressed concern over diversions and airborne distress signals, the aviation industry has generally remained calm in the face of what it sees as a series of unfortunate but unrelated events.

Rather, Qantas’ handling of recent events reinforces its reputation as the world’s safest airline, a title it has regained in recent weeks.

Geoff Askew, a former head of safety and emergency planning at Qantas, summed it up this way: “I haven’t read anything. It’s just a little bit of bad luck.”

Even Qantas’ frequent critics didn’t take these events to suggest a bigger problem. Travelers can take some comfort in the reassurances of Steve Purvinas, federal secretary of the Australian Association of Licensed Aeronautical Engineers, who in the past hasn’t disdained his words about Qanta’s leadership.

Purvinas told Guardian Australia: “In-flight engine shutdown has nothing to do with a false fire detection or an aircraft returning due to possible signs of malfunction as a precautionary measure.”

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“Is there a systemic maintenance issue on Qantas planes? This cannot be demonstrated in a few months with a few problems. They may not have anything serious for a while now.”

Purvinas does not believe there has been an increase in serious incidents at Qantas, but instead believes that news sources can now detect and report all incidents, regardless of severity, in real-time via online flight tracking websites.

“Fifteen years ago, if a plane had returned after takeoff as a precaution due to a problem, you would never have read it in the papers,” Purvinas said.

Australians’ obsession with Qantas is understandable. The airline, which has been state-owned for much of its history, cultivates its emotional bond with Australians, largely through tear-jerking TV commercials.

This explains the backlash to outsourcing ground workers at the start of the pandemic – an issue Qantas appealed to in supreme court, found to be illegal – with higher expectations from an airline that has enjoyed billions of taxpayer subsidies throughout the pandemic.

Qantas’ place in our culture also explains the anger Australians feel over delays, cancellations, mishandled baggage and poor customer service despite similar problems felt in the post-Covid aviation industry last year.

While Qantas remains Australia’s top-flying airline, it will always be the focus of intense scrutiny.

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