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When you reside in a country that is as far from anywhere else in the world as it is possible to be, you may develop an illogical resentment of your absolute reliance on airplanes.  As fond as I am of my bike, I’m unlikely to ride from here to North America any time soon.  Planes do, unfortunately, fall out of the sky from time to time.  Not to Qantas, though, at least not yet.  But this last one was a very close call.

In an amazingly short period of time, we have come to embrace the routine of air travel.  I am old enough to remember when it was anything but routine.  Boarding an airplane was an event, like riding an elephant through a river or taking a hot air balloon over the Alps.  The child-like wonder I once had has certainly eroded over time and the thrill is long gone, but I still marvel at the fact that it works at all.

On my last long-haul flight from San Francisco to Auckland, a man my age was doing some stretches in the aisle while I hovered in the toilet block waiting for a vacant sign.  He gave me a bemused look and said, “Amazing, Isn’t it.  These things can carry all these people.”  It is, indeed.  And each and every person has close to his own weight in luggage.  The fact that the engines can develop sufficient thrust to get all that (plus the plane and those heavy trolleys) into the sky before the end of the runway is amazing.

At any given moment in time, there must be a good-size town full of people flying around the planet.  All reliant on incredibly complex machines that take us way out of our comfort zone, up where it is very cold and we can hardly breathe.  Everest high.  Dependent on human beings, over-achieving offshoots of apes and chimps, not even up to snuff when it comes to multi-tasking, if recent studies prove correct.

Nobody pays any attention to the safety spiel any more.  It seems so distant, so irrelevant to what air travel has become, a routine mode of transportation.  I tried to picture folding my torso over my lap in an emergency but there is simply no room to do so anymore.  No one I know has ever seen an oxygen mask except in the hands of an airline attendant.

According to “The Age,” passengers on the recent flight from Hong Kong to Melbourne were under “orders” from Qantas not to comment about the ordeal.  Despite the blackout, Tara Kynnersly told reporters she thought she was going to die.  She had just received a proposal of marriage and was flying home to celebrate her 31st birthday. An hour out of Hong Kong, the plane plunged.  “I have a beautiful fiancee, family, friends– I have had a wonderful life… I’m on a plane, there’s nothing I can really do about it.”

When St. Kilda architect, David Suanders, boarded the jet he noticed water streaming down from a light fitting, a panel hanging off the wall, and that the rubber seal around the entrance door was frayed.  He mentionned to the head flighet attendant and the passenger next to him that the plane should be retired. David burst into turns during an emotional reunion with his mother and sister after arriving in Melboune.

Everyone has commented favourably on the professionalism of the captain and crew in the emergency.  That said, the 365 passengers and crew members were incredibly lucky.  If it had happened out over the South Pacific, the plane would have run out of fuel and crashed. The latest guess is that it was an oxygen cylinder, a safety device for the pilots, that caused the calamity.

With the price of fuel going through the roof and the prospect of a carbon tax kicking in, we can only hope maintenance won’t be sacrificed on the alter of shareholder profits.  Right now, flying is far and away the safest way to travel.  Let’s hope it stays that way.


There was a wacky and delicious moment in “Rainman” when Charlie’s autistic brother insists that they if must take an airplane from Chicago to L.A., they have to fly Qantas. By this point, Charlie, who is more than a little exasperated with his idiot/savant sibling, demands to know why they have to fly on that particular airline. Charlie’s logic is impeccable. Qantas doesn’t crash. The fact that they don’t fly from Chicago to L.A. is not his concern. He won’t get on a plane that doesn’t have a spotless safety record.

Many North Americans have warm and fuzzy feelings about Qantas that Australians don’t seem to share. Familiarity breeds contempt, and Australians have had 88 years to get overly familiar with the airline that began service as Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Limited. Here, it is affectionately known as “The Flying Rat.”

Despite the ups and downs of the aviation industry, which has gone through more shake ups than a mob of kangaroos, Qantas has benefited enormously from a protectionist policy with regard to routes and landing rights. The collapse of Ansett Australia in 2001 saw the market share of Qantas shoot up to 90%. Only the entry of Virgin Blue, perennial labor disputes, fuel costs, and the increasing strength of the Australian dollar have dampened the outlook.

In response to Virgin, the company started a successful low-cost subsidiary of its own, JetStar. Qantas now flies to 81 destinations on 5 continents and has announced plans to expand to South America and Dubai. Since its privatisation in 1993, Qantas has been one of the most profitable airlines in the world.

So, why isn’t the CEO happy?

It’s a labor thing. There have been a baker’s dozen of labor disputes since 1989 alone, pilots, baggage handlers, flight attendants, maintenance workers, catering staff, more maintenance workers, still more maintenance workers and now, finally, engineers.

The recent threat of industrial action by the Australian Liscenced Aircraft Engineers Association seems to be the last straw for tough-minded Geoff Dixon. He’s not calling out the dogs, but he is, apparently, trying to do a Ronald Reagan on the Union. The company hired Newport Aviation to find replacement engineers, offering up to $100,000 for six months work. Strikebreakers.

ALEA is pursuing a wage claim of 5%, citing inflation. Qantas insists it can’t afford more than 3% a year. The airline currently commands 80% of the market share on flights between Australia and the U.S. In February, it doubled its first-half profit, posting a tidy $618 million, putting it on track for a record 1.4 billion. But Dixon has warned that the fuel bill for the 2008-2009 financial year could rise by more than a billion dollars.

Dixon makes no secret of his desire to move maintenance jobs offshore. Only government “blackmail” in the interest of saving Australian jobs has prevented him from doing so. Yesterday, the union backed down, calling off the threatened action. Dixon, who has run the company for eight years now, said that “he and Qantas are holding firm.”

Stay tuned. Qantas hasn’t crashed yet but there’s still time.

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