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Airline faces fallout from mid-air drama

Jul 27, 2008

In a touch of irony, information systems provider Unisys released a survey on Friday showing Qantas was among the world's most trusted airlines.

The big driver for this, according to the survey of travellers in several Asia-Pacific countries, was safety and security.

"Qantas has built its trusted reputation, both in the Asia-Pacific and globally, through the commitment and focus we as an airline have put on safety, security and customer service," chief executive Geoff Dixon was quoted as saying.

Six hours later, Qantas was making international news after a hole was blown in the side of one of its jets and it was forced to make an emergency descent. The Unisys survey suggests trust in the Qantas brand will be heading south as a result of the accident, even though the airline may yet prove to be a hapless victim of unforeseen circumstances.

This kind of incident would have attracted international attention no matter what airline was involved, but the Qantas reputation for safety and its penchant for reminding everyone about the safety issue made the story even sexier.

The drama could not have come at a worse time for the carrier. It was already suffering from claims during a long-running dispute with its engineers that Qantas maintenance was going downhill. The dispute had mainly centred on work being sent offshore, but there were also claims that standards at home were dropping. A resolution to the dispute came just as the airline announced it was axing 1500 jobs.

Pilots have also recently raised concerns about the impact of commercial pressures on safety standards. Other problems for Qantas have included passenger anger at sometimes lengthy delays the airline blamed on industrial action but the unions said were at least partly attributable to other causes.

Qantas did not help itself in this case by being slow to react. It was still refusing to confirm the jet had been holed even as media outlets were interviewing people standing in the Manila terminal describing the damage.

The statement Qantas eventually issued about "loss of cabin pressure" can charitably be described as inadequate.

Just how this latest incident will affect Qantas's reputation in the longer term remains to be seen.

Qantas can still claim it has never had a jet aircraft hull loss - although it came perilously close when a 747 ran off the runway in Bangkok - and Qantas engineering is still highly regarded worldwide.

But perception is a big part of the battle, and every passenger who gets on a plane where the in-flight entertainment system has stopped working, water is leaking or a toilet is stopped will now have a niggling doubt.

Airline faces fallout from mid-air drama

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