Perhaps the only place you could have escaped the news was onboard the plane itself.
When Qantas flight 144 issued a mayday call shortly after it left Auckland for Sydney on Wednesday, a familiar cycle kicked off that would have left many with a sense of deja vu: yet another problem on a Qantas flight. But this one seemed serious.
Within minutes, smartphones were pinging alerts of a mid-air engine failure and news crews soon gathered at Sydney airport to broadcast its landing. Australians were able to watch on as pilots landed the Boeing 737 with just one engine – the national carrier’s safety record kept intact.
Pilots didn’t feel the need to spread panic through the cabin and only notified passengers of the extent of the engine issues after touching down. Travellers seemed bemused as they walked into a sea of cameras and reporters in the arrivals hall at Kingsford-Smith.
While the incident was certainly noteworthy – mayday calls on commercial passenger flights are rare and even rarer in Australia – the response was emblematic of a familiar pattern.
On 23 December, Qantas’s trademark QF1, on its way to London from Singapore, made an emergency landing in Azerbaijan due to concerns of smoke in the cargo hold. The incident – undoubtedly a significant air safety issue – and stories of those stranded as a result led nightly bulletins for days in the traditionally quiet news period over Christmas.
Then on Thursday – after QF144’s mayday call – a Fiji-bound QF101 turned back to Sydney as a precaution after pilots received a message about a potential mechanical issue. On Friday, QF430 from Melbourne to Sydney turned back to Tullamarine airport due to an indication of a minor engine issue.
Despite swift reporting – including by Guardian Australia – neither of the latter two incidents were emergency landings.
Also on Friday media outlets reported the Canberra-bound flight QF1516 turned back to Melbourne as a precaution over an issue with its flaps.
While Australians may be registering concern at the spate of diversions and mid-air distress signals, the aviation industry remains broadly unperturbed at what it sees as a string of unfortunate yet unconnected incidents.
If anything, Qantas’s handling of recent events bolster its credentials as the world’s safest airline – a title it regained in recent weeks.
Geoff Askew, a former director of security and emergency planning at Qantas, summed it up as follows: “I don’t read anything into it. It’s nothing other than just a bit of bad of luck.”
Even frequent critics of Qantas have not seized upon these incidents to suggest there is a larger problem. Travellers can take some comfort in the reassurances of Steve Purvinas, the federal secretary of the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association, who has not minced his words about Qantas leadership in the past.
“An inflight engine shutdown has no correlation to a false fire detection or a plane turning back as a precaution due to an indication of a potential fault,” Purvinas told Guardian Australia.
“Is there a systemic maintenance problem with Qantas aircraft? That can’t be indicated by a few problems over a few months. They might now have nothing serious for some time.”
Purvinas doesn’t believe there has been a surge in serious incidents at Qantas, rather that news outlets can now detect and report all incidents, regardless of seriousness, in real time through online flight tracking websites.
“Fifteen years ago, if an aircraft returned as a precaution because of a problem after takeoff, you’d never read about it in the newspapers,” Purvinas said.
Australians’ fixation on Qantas is understandable. State-owned for much of its history, the airline leans into its emotional connection with Australians, in no small part through its tear-jerking TV ads.
This explains the outcry over its outsourcing of ground handlers at the beginning of the pandemic – a matter found to be unlawful, which Qantas is appealing at the high court – with higher expectations of an airline that enjoyed billions in taxpayer subsidies throughout the pandemic.
Qantas’s place in our culture also explains the rage Australians felt with its delays, cancellations, mishandled luggage and poor customer service last year, despite similar issues being felt across the aviation industry post Covid.
While Qantas remains Australia’s most flown airline, it is always going to be the focus of intense scrutiny.