Outlook Qantas's launch of legal action against Rolls-Royce yesterday provided critics of the British engineering company with fresh ammunition. They question whether Rolls-Royce has taken a sufficiently tight grip of what could still be a public relations disaster.
Those who equate Rolls-Royce's problems with the fate that befell BP earlier this year exaggerate the point. No one has died and there has been no environmental disaster. And while Rolls-Royce's share price has fallen since the Qantas incident, there has hardly been the sort of collapse we saw at BP, not least because a string of lucrative new contracts have been unveiled. Indeed, Qantas's first legal claim yesterday was not sufficient to stop Rolls-Royce shares rising.
And yet the radio silence from the company remains deafening. True, it did make a statement yesterday specifically addressing the findings of an Australian safety board's review, but there was no attempt to counter the Qantas threat. Right from the moment news broke that a Qantas plane had been forced to make an emergency landing because of a failure in a Rolls-Royce engine, the company's executives have been conspicuous by their absence.
This is the way Rolls-Royce operates from Sir John Rose, its chief executive, down. Discretion is often admirable, but companies also have a duty to explain themselves – not least for the sake of their shareholders. Having surrendered the airwaves during this episode, Rolls-Royce may find it tough to get on the front foot if matters take a turn for the worse.