Qantas: Airline Safety's Golden Child No More?

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Roslan Rahman / AFP / Getty Images

A Qantas Boeing 747-400 that made an emergency landing earlier this month

In one of the best-known scenes in the film Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman's autistic character, Raymond, a fearful flier, is refusing to get on a plane to Los Angeles. His brother, played by Tom Cruise, attempts to persuade him to board by saying that all airlines have had a crash at some point, which doesn't necessarily mean that they are unsafe. Then Raymond offers, matter-of-factly, "Qantas. Qantas never crashed."

When Rain Man was released in 1988, the white kangaroo of the Australian carrier's logo was synonymous with safety. The airline's last fatal accident was in 1951, when a DHA-3 Drover crashed near the coast of Papua New Guinea, killing all seven on board. But that was before the jet age of the late '50s. Since then, Qantas' selling point has always been its reliability as the second oldest airline in the world and its pristine safety record.

Unfortunately for Qantas, which celebrated it's 90th anniversary on Nov. 16, Rain Man is a little outdated — as is the brand's impeccable image. Though there haven't been any fatal incidents in the interim, a series of close calls in the past two years has tarnished Qantas' once sterling reputation. One of the worst was an engine explosion on an A380 from Singapore to Sydney on Nov. 4, which resulted in an emergency landing and, later, in Qantas grounding its six A380s, two of which will be back in service on Saturday. Photos have since revealed just how close QF32, carrying 466 passengers and crew, was to crashing, showing where shrapnel from the exploded engine ruptured a fuel pipe and also pierced a wing. "They were extraordinarily lucky," says Adrian Mouritz, the discipline head of aerospace and aviation at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. "The plane could have caught fire and exploded midair."

Mouritz adds, however, that after takeoff there was nothing Qantas could have done: the explosion has since been attributed to an issue specific to the Trent 900 Rolls-Royce engines that may need to be replaced on half of the Airbus 380 fleet worldwide. "Once the engine failed and the aircraft started flying at high speed, it was really up to the gods if they survived the accident or not," says Mouritz. Qantas, Airbus and Rolls-Royce are currently investigating the incident.

The QF32 incident was just the start of an extraordinarily bad month for the airline. The day after, a 747 was turned back to Singapore after midair engine failure. On Nov. 12, a Boeing 767 was forced to turn back to Perth because of engine vibrations, and three days later, an Argentina-bound 747 had issues with the electrical system and returned to Sydney. That same week, a Boeing 717 QantasLink plane was struck by lightning when it was on its way to Darwin from Alice Springs, and the next day, a Qantas Boeing 747 engine was struck by birds and had to turn back to Johannesburg.

The company's share price has taken a beating. On Nov. 4, Qantas shares stood at $2.83; as of Nov. 22, they had fallen to $2.57. Last Friday, a survey of shareholders conducted by Colmar Brunton Research and BusinessDay showed that 90% of 2,000 investors agreed that the Qantas brand is at risk. "It went from people not putting Qantas and air-safety concern in the same sentence to them asking, 'How safe is Qantas?'" says Barry Urquhart, the managing director of Marketing Focus, a Perth-based market-research and strategic-planning practice. "No one cares what happens when you check in, or what happens at 30,000 feet; all they care about is whether they arrive safely and on time. No one wants a white-knuckle flying experience."

Qantas' safety issues first came to the industry's attention in 2008, after another string of incidents that included an exploding oxygen bottle blasting a hole in the fuselage of a Boeing 747 near Manila. On Monday, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau announced that this was a freak accident and unlikely to happen again.

But at the time, aviation-safety bodies were worried. In September 2008, Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), which opened an inquiry into the airline, said in a safety review that the agency "has looked carefully at Qantas maintenance systems and performance and uncovered signs of emerging problems." The main concern was that Qantas wasn't meeting its own safety standards. Mick Quinn, former deputy CEO of CASA, cited a lack of responsibility between Qantas and its maintenance company Qantas Engineering and Maintenance. A spokesperson for CASA told TIME that Qantas is a safe airline, but would not comment specifically on the A380 until the results of the investigation are released.

Some aviation-industry experts have linked the string of incidents since 2008 to offshore maintenance. Steve Purvinas, secretary of the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers' Association, says Qantas' safety standards have become "wonky" since they have increasingly moved their maintenance facilities abroad to Asia in the past decade. He said the worst thing he has seen was a Boeing 747 with incorrectly mounted engines, which CASA let slip by. This January, CASA responded to Purvinas' criticism on the website, by saying, "The traveling public can be assured CASA is carrying out regular audits and other safety checks of Australian airlines and the maintenance work carried out on Australian aircraft."

But Purvinas is not convinced. He believes Qantas has gone from a company run by pilots and engineers to one run by accountants and businessmen concerned only with price-cutting. "If they disregard the warning signs and don't make changes, then something more serious is bound to happen," he says. "They have lost control of their maintenance program." Qantas has denied such criticism, and insists that safety is the No. 1 priority. "Last year 92% of maintenance was done onshore," says Olivia Wirth, a Qantas spokesperson. "We are a national carrier. We can't afford to take any risks."

It could nevertheless take years for the company to recover its squeaky clean image. Its subsidiary company Jetstar will face a Senate inquiry next month into its safety standards and staff training. The inquiry was prompted in October, following a change in U.S. law that required that pilots have 1,500 hours of experience before being hired by airlines. Jetstar trains cadets for only 200 hours before they fly commercial planes.

"Put it this way," says Urquhart. "If Rain Man was made today, Dustin Hoffman would have been yelling out the name of another airline."