Changing Whilst Flying

Arthur liked to tinker with engines. All engines really, but aeroplanes in particular. When the new plane arrived he set to taking it apart and putting it back together again. Conditions in the far north of Australia were hot and harsh. He had to modify the original design of both the engine and the structure to make sure the damn thing stayed in the air. But fly it would. There was distance to be conquered.

I first met the engineers from the Qantas Aircraft Airworthiness department in the team room. I didn’t understand what they were talking about. There were large organisation charts on the wall. It felt tense. I was the only woman.

My role was to facilitate ‘the change’. In my briefing there had been mention of ‘three phases of transformation’ and some reduction numbers . My job was to make sure that it happened and that dollars were saved.

They didn’t trust me at first. Unsurprisingly, apart from the obvious fact that it was my job to ensure that their department’s budget went down. I was different to them. An ex-management consultant not an engineer. A woman not a man. From the Group Strategy department not the Engineering Organisation. An outsider not an insider.

My training as a management consultant had grown an ability to make thoughtful power point presentations but had not prepared me for cranky, stressed, change resistant engineers.

So, I called on my experience of life.

“I’m here to help.” I announced. “What do you need help with?”

It turned out that these engineers weren’t very good at communicating outside the lexicon of their engineering expertise. They also liked that I listened. I had my in.

These engines are totally unsuitable. Their radiators are tiny and built for cold climates. The blokes call em the “boiling Beardmores”. Arthur had his work cut out to make them fly the distance without overheating.

Over the next few months as I began to develop a working relationship with the team, I also began to understand the situation we were in.

Our team was leading the change to the department in the airline responsible for designing the way the aircraft fleet was maintained. The Engineers worked with the aircraft manufacturers, mechanics, pilots, and crew to ensure a perfect safety record in the air and on the ground at all times.

The fleet was complex with many different types of craft of differing ages. The aeroplane technology was also undergoing a generational change from the highly mechanised, metal jet aeroplanes to a new generation of machines which were made of carbon compounds and sophisticated electrical componentry generating data about the plane’s performance, function and wear. Most of the fleet were old jet aeroplanes (Boeing 747s, 767s, 717s). For these kinds of aircraft, maintenance involved checking and replacing components. Mechanics opened things up to take a look to ensure proper function of componentry. Visual inspection was critical to knowing that the aircraft was safe and ready for operation. The new aeroplanes were designed to not be opened up to take a look. The computer running the aeroplane gives the relevant data for assessment and analysis.

The department was struggling with running two sets of maintenance philosophies side by side, particularly as they were only just learning how to risk manage and optimise performance for the new parts of the fleet.

The organisation was highly unionised and the prior year the union had taken industrial action.

Taken together: the complex, small and ageing fleet, and powerful union had resulted in a cost of maintenance much higher than competitors. At a time when the airline was losing significant market share both internationally and domestically.

The department was highly scrutinised by the aviation regulators and the Chief Engineer was personally responsible for operating and upholding strict regulatory guidelines. An infraction could mean time in jail.

Our team was bringing pressure for change to a complex socio-technical system that could never fail.

The stakes were high.

As I mentioned before I was tasked with ensuring the cost savings were delivered to the Group. What I was really doing was helping to find the why.

Why are you bothering me when I have so much to do?

Why would we consider reducing the size of our workforce, we cannot get the work done with those we have?

We are the stewards of safety, the safe guarders of the sky. Our role is priceless. Why do we need to change?

Qantas was founded as a mail service for the remote farming and mining settlements in the far north of Australia. It was founded with the idea that flying could overcome the problems posed by distance and an unfriendly climate to these communities. Through time Qantas became a passenger airline connecting remote parts of the island continent. As Qantas grew as a business is started to connect Australia to the rest of the world, and served the British empire and a growing Australian nation in the second world war. Post war Qantas renewed its original founding intent of overcoming distance with flying technologies as it invested in the latest aeroplanes that could connect the remote island continent of Australia to the rest of the world, thus cementing the nation’s post war economic growth and cultural connections to Europe, US and Asia.

From its beginnings as an airmail operation, it has become one of Australia’s major corporates. Today Qantas is an airline group with the Qantas brand offering full service air travel alongside the Jetstar brand, the low cost offshoot. The Group owns airlines in Australia and Asia as well as the world’s most profitable loyalty program.

It has evolved through many inflection points of technology, world events and cultural change. The purpose of the Qantas Group remains to overcome the challenges of distance faced by the community of people who live in, or land on this island continent. As a nation of immigrants and adventurers many Australian families are spread all over the world.

So what happened?

The experience of the engineers and I was just one critical part of the transformation of Qantas that kicked off in a significant way back in 2010 when both costs and revenues were heading in the wrong direction. Alongside this effort to reduce the unit cost contribution of the engineering function was a similar effort to reduce costs across the business: crew, pilots, ground staff catering and IT were all examined and made more efficient. Fleet rejuvenation was a key enabler of cost reduction which meant that the whole airline was doing work on reducing costs for three long exhausting years without seeing the benefits. On the revenue side we took a long hard look at the network and made a big play to team up with Emirates to enable a lot more one stop flying into Europe, as well as putting the right planes on key directs routes in and out of Australia and flying them at the right times for our customers. In many ways it was text book airline transformation stuff. The tough part was actually getting it done under close scrutiny from unions, the media, regulators and the loyal, but tough, employee base. I remember 2010–2012 when the conversation with the frontline employees was the toughest, as not everyone understood why change was needed at that time. Ironically, it was when the share price started to bottom out under $1, that the final elements of the transformation were able to be pushed through, with the subsequent financial success that you can see in the chart below.

There is clearly more to the story than what I have told here.

Let us not forget that a generation of engineers, crew, ground staff and pilots left the company during this period. For some it was the right time to leave, for others it was a tough choice to not come into work at Qantas every day, for a significant few it was devastating.

I take enormous pride in being part of the turnaround of this iconic and special company.

Currently, I am an Australian living in the UK. My husband, two daughters and I must travel half a world to see and spend time with my parents, sisters, nieces, nephews and friends. I, like many Australians, must conquer distance to stay connected to people and places that I love. Qantas takes us home.

Image by Christine Baron

This article was first published May 21, 2018 on Medium

Subscribe to Love & Learn

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.