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Is Qantas too old?

This contribution has been submitted to Webdiary by a student in the Online Journalism unit for the Masters in Media Practice and Masters in Publishing courses at The University of Sydney as part of the unit's assessment. The topics covered in the pieces awaiting publication are interesting – and diverse. We hope that Webdiarists will enjoy reading them, as well as giving these aspiring journalists plenty of constructive commentary.

‘Qantas Too Old’: Is the world’s most reliable jet past its prime?
by Simon Harris

Even though 747’s have been around since the late 60’s they have kept the record for the safest aircraft in history so far. They have flown more than half the world’s population in the last 40 years with 3.5 billion people at the end of 2005. The bottom line is the 747, despite its great safety record, is an aging aircraft.

Most of the near misses or crashes have been due to pilot errors instead of aircraft mechanical faults. Although in more recent times with the ever increasing longevity of the 747, cracks are starting to appear and things are starting to drop.

On April 22, 2002 in Rome it appeared to be stress on landing gear, causing a Boeing 747's undercarriage to collapse while performing a U-turn to prepare for takeoff. The then Qantas Executive General Manager of aircraft operations, Mr. Forsyth, reportedly told ABC Television, “We never rule anything out but at this stage it looks extremely unlikely that it would be anything to do with pilot error. It looks very much like it's a straight mechanical-structural failure of a landing gear component.”

Two weeks after the civil aviation watchdog told Qantas to make a range of improvements to its aircraft due to a series of safety incidents which included an emergency landing in Manila when an oxygen tank exploded mid-flight in July. The other day on September 15, 2008 at 10.20pm a jet trying to take off from Brisbane airport to LA experienced a malfunction with one of its four engines causing it to be aborted. The Los Angeles-bound jet QF175 reached a speed of 100 knots, or 185km/h, when a warning light forced the pilot to make an emergency stop before the end of the runway.

It had reached two-thirds of its speed for takeoff, but a Qantas spokesperson described the aborted takeoff speed as “low.” It was called a technical issue with the aircraft's engines.

Now on April 25, 2002, a few days after the Rome incident happened, a similar thing occurred on a Qantas flight leaving from Singapore to Rome. (Was it the same jet?) On takeoff there was also a problem with one of the engines but with this flight the jet took off. About 90 minutes into the flight the captain told the passengers there was an engine malfunction and turned back to re-land in Singapore. Almost three hours later after dumping most of the fuel over the Strait of Singapore it landed leaving passengers stranded in Singaporeuntil they replaced the jet the evening after with another specially flown in from Sydney.

One of the passengers a Mr. S Harris from Sydney said, “It didn’t feel like we were going to get off the ground. We knew there was a problem and it took an hour and a half for them to admit it. There was an electrical storm in the distance, it was frightening. Fuel and electricity isn’t a good combination. You can imagine the look on people’s faces. The Whitlams were in first class on the flight as well. Gough pushed onboard in a wheel-chair, white haired, looking frail. Margaret was very upright and mobile. I was amazed they were still so much into travelling. I couldn’t help but think this trip might curb their desire.”

On March 21, 2007 an audit raised serious concerns about the safety of Qantas due to the flaws found with an overseas maintenance contractor, Singapore Airlines Engineering Company. They included screws left scattered on wings, cables not replaced and substandard repairs on floor panels. It underlines union concerns about Qantas maintenance going off shore. Qantas outsourcing the aircraft is simply washing their hands of the process and also safety standards.

Pan Am began 747 service in 1970. The first flight was seven hours late due to engine trouble, a harbinger of early teething problems and it seems a much older issue today. The cycle continues!

The new Airbus A380 will soon bring to an end the 747’s reign as the leviathan of the skies. The 747’s history as the most important airliner is secure, so far.

S. Harris (passenger on board the Singapore,Rome flight in2002)
reuters.com (photo and some figures)
smh.com (research, photos)


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Talking about the 40 year old version

Sorry I didn't make that clear enough... 40 year old jets...for the people who dismiss what someone has written minutes  after they've read the article.

Think it's called the gold fish syndrome! 

The 787

Then there's the 787 Dreamliner...

"All Nippon Airways has agreed to take delivery of Boeing Co.'s new 787 Dreamliner jet in August 2009, one year and three months behind original schedule, informed sources told Jiji Press Thursday..."

It will be interesting to see if much of the technology developed for the 787 could migrate to newer versions of the 747.

747 vs A380?

Simon, I enjoyed reading your piece. You selected an interesting topic for travellers and aircraft lovers. The Boeing 747 is probably the most recognisable airplane in the world, and it still divides people when it comes to acknowledging its supremacy in the skies.  I still don't see the 747 as an ageing or out-of-date aircraft though. Its latest variant, the 747-8, was announced in 2005 and is set to enter service next year. I believe it will rival the new Airbus A380, and I rule out a possible end of the legendary 747, at least for the next decade.

Your story should have stuck more with the title. Qantas' 747 fleet failing to meet safety requirements in certain occasions has nothing to do with the quality of 747s in general. I really liked the examples of malfunctions, I didn't know about all of them and they back up your argument well. 

Some in-text hyperlinks, especially linking to the other cases of malfunctions, would improve your already well written story. 

I love the 747!

Simon, I am not sure I buy your point that the 747 is an ageing aircraft. True, the first747s were rolled out in the 70s, but the aircraft has evolved much since then. There have been successive generations of the aircraft – from the early 747-100s to the more recent 747-400s – each sporting newer, sophisticated technologies. The latest model, 747-400 ERF, was delivered to Air France only in 2001. I'm sure you agree that this can hardly be called an ageing aircraft.

Maybe you should anchor your story around Qantas’s ageing 747 fleet instead? Also, perhaps the story would begetter without repeatedly switching between 2002 and 2007. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading this.

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