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Silver Lining: A380 Grounding Helps Qantas Maintain Its Safety Reputation

One month after Qantas grounded its A380 airplanes due to a major engine failure, the problem continues to plague the airline and the A380 program. But after a rocky start, the Qantas public relations effort has improved dramatically. Now, it appears that the grounding may actually benefit the airline by cementing its reputation as a safe passenger carrier.

Initially, chaos ruled as people wondered if and when their flights would finally go. When Qantas grounded its A380s, it had to scramble to get together enough capacity to serve its customers. That was difficult on short notice, and the airline suffered for it. It's become fairly routine for the airline now, however, even though it will probably be at least another month before all of the A380s are back.

With these groundings come soaring costs and continued customer inconvenience (albeit mostly minor at this point). So how is it that Qantas may come out of this smelling like a rose?

The airline has really rallied around a safety message and it seems like it might stick. CEO Alan Joyce sent an email to all frequent-flier program members intended to calm and reassure fliers. Here's a snippet:

We have undertaken a rigorous inspection program in conjunction with Rolls Royce and Airbus to ensure the fleet is ready to return to service.

We always put safety first, and we continue to take a conservative approach to the reintroduction of the A380 fleet. So we will initially operate the A380 between Australia and the United Kingdom. As more A380s come into service, we will assess when and how best to deploy them.

I want to assure you that we have full confidence in our A380 aircraft fleet, and will not fly any individual aircraft unless we are completely sure that it is safe to do so.

This message strikes the right tone. The A380 isn't going back into service because Qantas is being conservative. So if a customer ends up flying on one, it's only after an extensive program to ensure that airplane is safe.

Favorable articles, like this one in the Herald Sun in Melbourne, will only continue to push the message. It helps that this is a reputation Qantas has cultivated for years.

Nearly everyone remembers the movie Rain Man, in which Dustin Hoffman's character proclaims that "Qantas never crashed." The line alone has contributed to customer perception of Qantas, regardless of how true or false it is. (The answer depends upon how you define "crash," though clearly passengers are quite safe on the airline.)

Meanwhile, in the last month, every irregular operation at Qantas has received extra media scrutiny, and that type of press is bound to erode the positive reputation, right? Surprisingly, no. Instead, Qantas looks more and more like the victim of poor engine construction and the party suffering mightily in the name of safety.

It helps that CEO Joyce emphasizes the importance of safety every chance he gets. That, the whole Qantas public relations effort, the grounding of the airplanes, and the positive media treatment mean that Qantas really will come out of this with a stronger safety reputation than before.

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