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Qantas B737-800Qantas has hit back after six mishaps involving its aircraft (five of which saw flights turn back) generated media attention and public concern.

Widely read US-based Bloomberg news service published a report headed: Qantas Mayday Alert, Flight Turnbacks Put Safety Reputation Under Spotlight. Qantas, “the airline whose stellar safety record was made famous by Hollywood,” was back in the spotlight “after a flurry of mechanical malfunctions”, the report said.

Bloomberg noted that since a mayday alert and engine shutdown on a plane from Auckland to Sydney, “at least four aircraft” had turned around because of problems with wing flaps, warning indicator lights or fumes in the cabin. “The planes all landed safely.”

There were six incidents, including the well-publicised trans-Tasman Mayday call and engine shutdown. In that incident on 18 January, Qantas B737-800 flight QF144 landed safely at Sydney airport after issuing a mayday call mid-flight over an engine failure that compelled the flight crew to land using just one of the plane’s two engines.

Over the weekend just past, a Sydney-bound Qantas flight turned back to Fiji as a precaution after pilots were alerted to fumes in the cabin.

An oven in the aircraft galley was the most likely culprit.

It was the fifth turnback in an unfortunate week for the airline, which also saw a sixth aircraft (the B737-800 trans-Tasman flight QF144) forced to land with a failed engine.

A further three flights were diverted on Friday, the Sydney Morning Herald reported: a QantasLink service from Melbourne to Canberra (an issue with the aircraft’s flaps); a Melbourne-Sydney B737-800 flight (minor engine issue) and an Adelaide-Melbourne service (forced to abort takeoff after receiving a fault indication while on the runway).

Just before Christmas, a Qantas A380 flight from Singapore to London made an unscheduled landing at Baku Airport in Azerbaijan after an electronic sensor on the aircraft’s flight deck intermittently alerted the pilots to the possibility of smoke in the cargo hold. No evidence of smoke was found.

Responding to all this, Andrew David, Qantas Domestic and International chief executive, said it was “important to put these things in context”.

“Across aviation, there are diversions and air turn backs happening every day for a range of reasons,” David said.

“They usually reflect an abundance of caution, and that’s why flying is such a safe way to travel.

“When they happen at Qantas, we’re proud of how well our people deal with them, and that comes back to our safety record and our commitment to training.

“We understand that when you hear reports of planes turning around, it’s concerning. But people can be assured that aviation is built on safeguards, and one of those safeguards is that if something isn’t right, we take a conservative approach to the problem rather than pressing on.

“Aircraft are complex machinery with millions of moving parts, and it’s not uncommon to have a problem with one of them. What’s important to know is that aircraft are designed with that in mind and have a lot of built-in redundancy, and our crew are trained to deal with those situations so that they can land safely.

“Qantas always puts safety first, from how we maintain our aircraft to how we fly them. That hasn’t changed for 100 years and it never will.”

At the start of this month, AirlineRatings.com, the world’s only safety, product and Covid rating website, named Qantas the world’s safest airline for 2023.


  • The Qantas Group averages around 60 air turnbacks per year out of more than 10,000 across the industry.
  • Globally, there are an estimated 400-500 engine shutdowns across all narrow-body jet aircraft per year; Qantas’ shutdown rate on the 737 is well below the industry average.


Written by Peter Needham