QANTAS

here was spontaneous applause when the plane touched down.

Only this wasn’t a third-world rust-bucket.

It was a Melbourne to Sydney flight on Qantas: Our so-called national airline.

Sunday’s drama began with a fuel leak, climaxed with three landing attempts in a fierce electrical storm, and ended with the chief steward announcing, “Thanks to your all-Australian crew, we landed safely”.

A friend on board praised the captain for his laconic humour.

But it got her wondering: Will Qantas retain it stellar safety record if staffed by overseas crews?

This kind of question can sound xenophobic.

But a Senate inquiry has heard Thai air crew on Jetstar work for up to 23 hours a day, five to six days a week, earning just $400 a month.

That’s slave labour.

Late last year, former cabin attendant Dallas Finn quit his job because of concerns about safety and fatigue, after flying five international flights in as many days.

Mr. Finn told News Ltd, Singapore-based crew members were unable to answer the emergency procedure and medical questions at a pre-flight briefing.

“It was the first time I’ve actually been scared of flying,” he said.

One current employee, speaking to me anonymously, said he’d never put his family on a Jetstar flight because of poorly trained pilots.

“Sure, there’s a second pilot on every plane,” he said, “but often they’ve had no experience flying that particular type of aircraft.”

“If something happens to the captain, you’re screwed.”

The aviation safety watchdog is watching the airline closely after a string of botched landings in 2011.

“There is now ongoing monitoring of the Jetstar cadet scheme to ensure it continues to meet with required standards,” a CASA spokesman told Fairfax.

While Qantas hasn’t had a fatal crash since 1951 – a fact made famous by the film Rain Man – there’ve been three close shaves since privatisation: A 747 runway overrun in Bangkok in 1999; a 747 onboard explosion in 2008; and a sudden dive aboard an Airbus A330 when steering equipment malfunctioned.

And air safety authorities have just announced they’re investigating a close call between two Qantas 737s and a small plane coming in to land at Melbourne airport last week.

It all begs the question – should the airline have been kept in government hands?

Internationally, the airline industry has been on a downward spiral since the arrival of low cost carriers.

In the US, passenger airlines lost $14b in ‘08-’09; Air France-KLM’s net debt is 6.5b Euros; and British Airways reported a 164m Pound loss in 2010.

Yet Middle Eastern airlines, which are majority owned by government, continue to flourish with a growth rate of 20% over the past few years.

Emirates has ordered dozens of the fuel efficient Boeing 777s, while Qantas is stuck with the dud 787s.

The point is this: Qantas is not going down the gurgler because of high wages, falling demand or ‘militant’ industrial action.

It’s because the previous management bought the wrong aircraft, failed to maintain them, treated workers with contempt, and hiked executive salaries.

Geoff Dixon, I’m looking at you.

For eight years, Mr Dixon was the highest paid airline executive in the world.

Talk about history repeating itself.

Current CEO Alan Joyce won a 71 per cent pay rise while calling for jobs to be axed, sparking the infamous Qantas dispute.

But they aren’t the only villains.

Qantas Chairman Leigh Clifford has brought an arsenal of union-busting weapons from his days at Rio Tinto.

As Chief Executive of the mining giant, he changed the workplace culture by stripping employees’ entitlements.

Now, I’m not one for conspiracy theories.

But it’s interesting that both Rio Tinto and Qantas this week put submissions to Fair Work Australia, calling for changes to federal workplace laws.

Qantas wants workers to be fined four-hours pay for taking legal industrial action.

Why should workers on $60,000 a year suffer because of mistakes made by those earning $5 million?

Alan Joyce has announced 500 cuts in catering jobs with a further 1460 maintenance jobs at risk.

Flight and back office positions are also under review.

This followed a dismal half-yearly result of $42m net profit after tax – a decline of 83 per cent from the previous half-year.

“Never in the 90 year history of the airline has the disparity between executive reward and performance been more at variance,” aviation expert Ben Sandilands writes.

The Transport Workers Union wants new laws to deal with the “ferocious appetite” of employers to send jobs overseas.

But Qantas says jobs won’t be offshored – they will simply disappear.

This would be a national tragedy.

Australians still feel a strong emotional bond with our national carrier.

The federal government has an obligation to be more involved with businesses tied to our identity.

That would undoubtedly elicit applause from workers and the travelling public.