Friday, January 15, 2010

Whistleblowers attacked at QANTAS subsidiary

The men who raised concerns about Jetstar Pacific feel vindicated by an inquiry into the airline -- but the airline is not apologizing

DIGGER KING knew his colleagues were unhappy when he joined his fellow Jetstar Pacific engineer Bernard McCune in taking their concerns about safety at the carrier to Vietnam's aviation regulator. But he did not expect the loud knock on his front door late one night in November.

"This guy came around to my place on a motorcycle and rammed it into my door. He then started to kick it down." The man, says Mr King, was David Andrew, his former housemate and the maintenance manager at Jetstar Pacific, in which Qantas has a 27 per cent shareholding.

A police report of the incident formed part of a Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam (CAAV) investigation into Jetstar Pacific, which ordered Mr Andrew be removed from his post, an edict the airline adhered to.

"There was a lot of hatred there for me," said Mr King, a 65-year-old veteran of the airline industry. "People were telling me, 'You are going to bring us down. This place will go out of business.' I told them if they did something when we first complained about it, it never would have come to this."

Mr King and Mr McCune spoke yesterday of blowing the whistle on what the CAAV found in a report released this week to be a "very poor and ineffective" culture of safety maintenance at Jetstar Pacific.

Mr McCune, who was found by the Vietnamese authorities to have been illegally sacked after he refused to sign a resignation letter drafted for him, said he first raised the safety issues in early 2008. "The reason we went to the CAAV is because senior managers weren't responding to the safety concerns. There was an intense investigation and we have been found to be correct."

As well as finding that the airline had committed a number of safety violations, the CAAV report also accused Jetstar of covering up defects.

On Wednesday night, a day after the report's release, both men said they felt vindicated. All they had wanted, said Mr McCune, was to "fix the safety problems and clear our names".

Mr McCune has become a minor media fixture in the country. Photos he obtained of a damaged plane laden with passengers ready to depart were splashed across the country's print and online media last year. Jetstar accused Mr King of leaking the photos. He was suspended two days later on the grounds of making repeated mistakes, a rationale the CAAV found to be unsubstantiated.

Local maintenance staff at Jetstar petitioned for Mr McCune's reinstatement, saying "he was the foreigner they hated most" when he started at the airline in 2006 but they soon came to regard him as a "good teacher and good friend".

While the CAAV backed the whistleblowers, Bruce Buchanan, the chief executive of Jetstar, said yesterday there would be no apology nor reinstatement for the men.

Mr Buchanan said the CAAV report had been blown out of proportion and he insisted he would have grounded the airline if he had had concerns about its safety. "This airline is performing well and from a safety perspective it is making giant strides … The safety performance has improved 100-fold since we got in it," he said.

Mr McCune denied Mr Buchanan's claims. He said he had never applied for a promotion at Jetstar Pacific and that both men had presented written and verbal reports on the safety flaws at the airline, including a lengthy email - viewed by Fairfax Media - to a senior Qantas manager based in Australia.


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