Qantas in the air again

kmreigerDr Kerreen Reiger


This opinion was originally published in the National Times 1 November, 2011.

I am writing this on an American Airlines flight heading across the US. I've just been offloaded when the Qantas one was grounded, much to the horror of the conscientious and courteous staff about to be locked out. We heard the news when the captain was about to respond to a passenger's query about who won the Victoria Derby, only to find much more urgent issues demanding his attention. The cabin crew were just dumbstruck. So were we all.

How has it come to this? I am a social scientist who researches workplace and professional cultures and have long had an interest in airline work, especially research into gendered practices. Not only do I travel frequently but I saw the long-term impact and emotional toll wrought by the Ansett dispute and its aftermath on friends and on my local community. One of the most distressing scenes I recall from 1990 was the sight of middle-aged male pilots crying at the airport as they farewelled their families and headed offshore for jobs.

And now it's Qantas. Over recent weeks I have become more and more alarmed, not at union concerns at jobs going offshore and lowering safety standards, but at the evident agenda of Qantas's management in seeking to ''trash the brand'' itself.

I recently flew on the last leg of a so-called ''Qantas'' flight from Los Angeles via Auckland. Instead it was a Jetconnect flight bearing little resemblance to the professional standards traditionally associated with Qantas. The plane was shabby and service was minimal.

Jetstar, or worse, is clearly the model now being proposed for Qantas. Yet reports suggest that it's an awful organisation to work for. Indeed, I was horrified recently to hear that lower-paid Thai flight attendants had to sleep on a Jetstar plane on the tarmac instead of having a proper rest in a hotel.

There must be another way. Alan Joyce and his management's determination to strip back both Jetstar and now Qantas, shows both short-sightedness and lack of commitment to their workforce, their invaluable human capital.

We can take another tack though. Interestingly enough, airlines have led the international field in recognising the intrinsic link between the human factors making for crew error and mishaps and instituting training procedures to minimise accidents. This has now influenced the field of healthcare, yet some leading hospitals have gone further and are streets ahead of aviation, or at least of airlines such as Qantas.

They have shown that you can't have good outcomes without excellence in organisational cultures. Accordingly, influential healthcare leaders have set out to improve quality and safety through insisting on high standards of performance from everyone - from executives to cleaners - and always based on the shared value of giving effective service to patients or ''consumers''. The workplace practices espoused by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, the Studer Group, and Planetree network in the US for instance are now well recognised.
Most tellingly for airlines struggling in a difficult market, US hospitals following these new management principles also become successful financially. Good leadership from the top down to improve performance and build collegiality pays off, lowering costs and gaining market share. Another model is out there to look to, if the damage done recently can be repaired.

Enlightened management consultants, rather than industrial relations antagonists, are needed to help get some genuine dialogue going. And some independent journalists not influenced by Qantas ''favours'' need to put their skills to work, too. We need to know the grounds for aircraft maintenance and safety concerns and have a national debate about aviation work standards, preferably before the risk of planes crashing increases.

We know that airline jobs are pretty good ones to have, but right now I, for one, don't begrudge the rewards of those who have them. As I'm on a plane about to climb down from 41,000 feet into JFK airport, and through an unseasonable and wild snow storm, I just see them working hard. I am also glad they see me as a passenger towards whom they have a ''duty of care'', not just a customer. We might take large jets hurtling across continents for granted now but on nights like this one, it pays to remember the extraordinary achievement this human endeavour remains and to respect those who make it possible for us to arrive safely.

Dr Kerreen Reiger is an honorary research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at La Trobe University and a Qantas frequent flyer.