Is Qantas shirking its corporate responsibilities?

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There’re a couple of letters in today’s issue of The Age (8/11/2010) related to Qantas’s A380 problems that I think illustrate a tendency to over-egg the corporate responsibility pudding.

A Peter Tregear of Brunswick is surprised that on a recent flight from Hobart to Melbourne, Qantas’s in-flight news service did not cover the serious engine trouble the airline was having at the time with the A380 Airbus.

He wonders if the news provider, Channel Nine, came under pressure from Qantas to excise the story or whether it was self-censorship by the network. Either way, he concludes, it’s not a great moment for either journalism or corporate honesty. He asks if Qantas has something to hide.

I would say the last thing some passengers want to hear about while they’re mid-flight is the vulnerability of flying. A flight from Hobart is likely to have more occasional flyers who might have some fear of flying than (say) flights on the Sydney-Melbourne routes that have many frequent business travellers.

This story dominated the terrestrial news so I don’t think passengers wouldn’t have known about Qantas’s problems before they boarded. And the in-flight news is invariably so out of date so it would be hard to argue passengers were being denied ‘new’ information.

I think the airline did the right thing – good call Qantas.

In another letter, a Lindsay Neilson of Melbourne raises the issue of the fuel that Qantas’s troubled A380 (and a 747) dumped in the ocean before returning to Singapore to make an emergency landing last week.

Ms or Mr Neilson argues that Qantas should pay compensation for the environmental damage caused to ocean ecology. The contention is that, at the very least, there should be an environmental levy on airlines for each litre of fuel dumped.

I agree with the principle that airlines should pay for any damage to the ocean and it would probably be good PR for Qantas to do so. There might be some technical issues though. The key one is that aviation fuel released in a controlled manner does not fall into the ocean – it evaporates.

This is not the Gulf of Mexico spill and it’s not the Exxon Valdez – it’s a plane. There might be real difficulty in finding and measuring evidence of environmental damage and in attributing it clearly to the dumping of aviation fuel rather than other causes.

The real issue should be to prevent dumping in the first place. If airlines carelessly dump fuel that damages the environment there would be a case for the sort of regulation The Age’s correspondent proposes.

But fuel is so expensive airlines have a very powerful incentive to husband it carefully. In-flight dumping is only going to happen on a significant scale in those relatively rare situations where there is an unforseen emergency. The volume dumped will also depend on whether the emergency occurs near the start or the end of the flight.

I expect that the cost of implementing the sort of levy Lindsay Neilson advocates would be far higher than the cost of remediating the environmental damage from dumping.

I don’t know if there’s any pressure from the wider environmental movement on this point. Quite frankly I don’t think it would be good strategy to focus on the probably small environmental effects of a relatively rare event undertaken with the objective of minimising the risk to five hundred or more people.

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