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Selling Qantas: The question of safety at the sharp end.

Recent polling by various industry and union groups including the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association (ALAEA) and Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) is exposing an underlying sore in the proposed takeover of Qantas led by Macquarie Bank: how will safety be affected?

Aviation safety is a vast and complex beast, yet it is consistently viewed by the public as a simple entity: the so-called safety record. And in Australia the notion of aviation safety includes an additional dimension akin to nationalistic pride, whereby you can ask most any person about their perception of aviation safety and they will cite Qantas in their answer. If you were to ask them about Qantas more generally, they would mention its safety record. However, safe outcomes in aviation can never be guaranteed because flight’s inherent risk will never be eliminated. With the high status of Qantas in the aviation safety consciousness of the Australian public, the airline has some serious convincing to do. The public have seen phrases in the media including “debt-ridden consortium” and “$11 billion takeover” and are rightly concerned about the ongoing safety of the airline.

A recent survey by the ALAEA reportedly shows that many Qantas personnel who work at ‘the sharp end’ of the airline’s daily operations (in this case maintenance personnel and engineers that regularly get their hands dirty) have serious concerns regarding ongoing safety deficiencies. The survey results are worrying not so much because they indicate widespread concerns for safety – as these can often be ‘healthy’ – but because they indicate pressure from more senior personnel to cut corners. Three quarters of those surveyed by the ALAEA indicated that they had been pressured to “take short cuts on safety”. But worse still is that such pressure from management is often disguised as a much friendlier concept – the “can-do culture”. These more intangible, cultural aspects are where some of the worst damage to safety can be done. This is particularly evident when a division develops between more junior personnel at the sharp end and those more senior personnel typically removed from the sharp end.

My PhD research in aviation safety and organisational culture found that attitudes towards aviation safety became more positive as personnel became more senior in the organisational hierarchy. The population sample included over 400 aviation professionals - aircrew and aviation engineers from the Royal Australian Air Force. And, yes, this correlation between seniority and optimism regarding safety remained after excluding the effects of respondents’ age and years of aviation experience.

The issue of seniority and safety optimism might be an important issue for Qantas to examine within its own ranks, perhaps now more than ever, as the Australian public and their representatives in Canberra go about seeking assurances relating to the Qantas sale. There are certainly interesting parallels that may apply to Qantas in relation to aviation safety in the Australian military. Firstly, aviation organisations of all colours are very hierarchical in a typically triangular manner, with strict lines of responsibility, Standard Operating Procedures, etc. In such an environment, status and seniority become very important to the members of the group. Secondly, Australian military aviation personnel have been, and continue to be, a sizeable and consistent recruiting source for Qantas.

Another result from my PhD research is also relevant to note here. It shows how people distance themselves – probably through the human behavioural trait known as ego-defensiveness – from being associated with safety incidents. Over eighty percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that "errors are inevitable events in aviation operations", yet only 63% agreed that safety incidents could easily occur within their own area of operation.

Another interesting result was that 84% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that Australian Defence Force (ADF) aviation is safe, yet, since 1990, some 60 aircraft accidents have occurred in the ADF in non-combat operations! This result aligns with previous research that shows that safety is a subjectively framed perception rather than a measurable benchmark or safety record.

So while safety is never a guaranteed outcome, and there will surely be some masterful public relations displays in the coming months, safety is a serious social phenomenon that politicians and Qantas executives must bring into sharp focus. A government inquiry has been touted as a means to better understand how safety might change following the proposed takeover. It’s a move in the right direction, but both government and Qantas have some convincing to do.

Dr Boyd Falconer
The University of New South Wales
Sydney, NSW 2052 Australia

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