Lessons from Qantas violation for overweight cargo

View from behind the wing of a big white jet, looking in at an angle as plane moves down runway

Poor communication between crew and load planners led a Qantas Airways (AX: QAN) passenger plane to take off above approved weight limit and spurred the airline to deploy hand-held scanning devices to automate most of the freight confirmation process, according to the results of an investigation by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB).

On Dec. 17, 2017, a Qantas A330-300 departed Sydney 1,047 pounds above the maximum takeoff weight, but the problem wasn’t discovered until the plane landed in Beijing.  

The crew didn’t report any control or performance problems, but continued operation of an aircraft that has exceeded its certified weight can lead to unaccounted structural damage and poses a safety risk.

The ATSB, Australia’s equivalent to the U.S.’s National Transportation Safety Board, determined that revised loading instructions to replace a 4,420-pound pallet with a lighter Unit Load Device because the plane took on extra fuel were not correctly understood by the load supervisor, who believed that the electronic message was supposed to be accompanied by verbal notice over radio or telephone. Using his tablet device connected to the freight management system, the ramp worker acknowledged the message from the load control office but didn’t change the containers in the forward hold.

Qantas has since formalized a procedure for verbal communication to accompany any changes in the load instruction.

The incident highlights the importance of communication between all parties responsible for aircraft loading, especially in passenger operations that often are under significant time pressures and where delays can lead to scheduling issues, the ATSB report said. 

Prompted by the loading mistake, Qantas last June completed the replacement of iPads with hand-held scanning devices and printed bar codes that automate much of the freight confirmation process before loading onto an aircraft. 

(Click here for more FreightWaves stories by Eric Kulisch.)