When Alexander Kennedy took to the skies as the first Q.A.N.T.A.S. passenger, he exclaimed: “Damn the doubters!”
That was 90 years ago today.
But as Alan Joyce stood in front of shareholders at today’s annual general meeting in Canberra, he could just as well have uttered those same words.
Instead it was one of the shareholders – a shareholder as defiantly positive about the future of the airline as Joyce and his chairman Leigh Clifford. That, despite this same day being the eve of 12 months since Joyce and the Qantas board grounded the airline for the first time in its history.
This year’s Qantas AGM, if nothing else, highlighted the schizophrenic nature of the sentiment the airline attracts.
In one corner were shareholders extolling the achievements and virtues of the Qantas CEO and his chairman. Yet in the other corner was an orchestration of vitriol over the lack of dividends paid to shareholders, poor management decisions and the impact of the grounding on the airline’s performance and reputation. And of course, there was the annual gladiatorial ritual of formally approving the CEO’s remuneration, which attracted vulgar and laborious debate swaying between support and damnation.
Despite the polar differences in opinion, though, there were some unambiguous consistencies.
One was the defiant stand Joyce and Clifford are taking against the tide of cost pressures, international competition and negative sentiment. Whether sitting in the right or left corner of the room, there was something energising and mesmerisingly patriotic about the conviction with which the two spoke about the future of Qantas and that despite everything, it will succeed.
That, after all, is what anyone wants. As I’ve written in the November issue of the magazine, it is that latent pride for the airline that stands to be its greatest salvation.
A segue to the second consistency. Whether shareholders were critical or supportive, they attended because they openly care about the airline’s future. After all, given the performance of Qantas shares in the last few years, they are not in it for wealth creation.
There were some other interesting insights. Joyce was unapologetic for grounding the airline, but apologetic for the imposition it created for customers. The grounding was deemed a successful remedy for breaking industrial deadlock.
There was no reply to questions and comments about staff engagement or the lack of it. In fact the avoidance of the subject altogether reflected the same defiance apparent in Joyce and Clifford throughout the meeting on every other subject.
A point of additional intrigue, though. While there was liberal self-congratulation and promotion of the virtues of the forthcoming partnership with Emirates (and deservedly so) there was also an oddly hypocritical view expressed about the tax advantages Middle Eastern carriers enjoy and the benefits they derive on their financial bottom lines as a result. It smacked of the battle rhetoric waged against Emirates and other carriers from the region before Qantas found an ally in one of the alleged prime offenders. The re-emergence of the issue so openly at the AGM was an odd adjunct to what is so strongly touted as the saviour to Qantas international’s future viability.
In short, a lot has changed in 90 years.
But the words “Damn the doubters” resound just as strongly – and just as poignantly – as they did 90 years ago.
It was, frankly, patriotic stuff.