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Is Qantas too old?

By Simon Harris
Created 28/09/2008 - 13:15

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 [1] (photo and some figures)
smh.com [2] (research, photos)
youtube.com [3]
caac.gov.cn [4]

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