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Damn the doubters – Qantas defiant

written by australianaviation.com.au | November 2, 2012
Qantas has linked its fortunes with Emirates. (Rob Finlayson)

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.

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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.

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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.

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8 Comments

  • Mike M

    says:

    Time will tell – but I’m guessing it will show Joyce to be the man who destroyed Qantas. Where on earth did Qantas get him? But more importantly – why?

  • Ron

    says:

    An airline is in the business of moving people (& goods) from one place to another. The focus must always be on the people & their experience, delivered by the well resourced & engaged staff who serve them. When the focus shifts to playing self serving corporate games, carrying “our national pride”, & all the other waffle dribbled above, the business will fail, or at best, limp on uninspiringly from one self-proclaimed achievement to another till nobody cares about it at all. That’s my view on Qantas. May God have mercy on its soul. Nobody else does.

  • Brendan

    says:

    Joyce is defiant because he & his mate Clifford now the truth, they have been pumping money out of Qantas international, to fund there jetstar investments, but in turn can use internationals losses as platform to reduce wages and crest reforms. If u look in the statements, Qantas cash reserves went from $3 billion to $3.4 billion this year, but they made 400 million loss, plus they have never said disclosed how they have been funding the start up cost of, jetstar Japan, jetstar Hong Kong, jetstar pacific has also been losing money ever since it was started up, funny business by Joyce I think.

  • Air Observer

    says:

    I think when an entity is floated it enters a danger zone. rather than weathering market ups and downs, the pressure to make gains for investors often compromises sound decision making. As for the airline’s image, Qantas has gone from leading from the front to following from the rear. Sad when for years they were responsible for leading innovation in long haul.

  • Josh

    says:

    Patriotic? There is nothing to be patriotic about. For all but the most unintelligent and fiercely brand-loyal pundits the patriotic capital has been well and truly spent. QANTAS is no longer valued for it’s safety, its engineering reputation, its crew training or its employment of and loyalty to the Australian people. QANTAS is already dead; it’s just a matter of time before it collapses under the weight of true competition from Virgin and Tiger. As a former QANTAS frequent flyer, an Pilot with many friends flying for the airline, and an Australian, I probably should care. The fact is I don’t; if Joyce and the current management want to trade away all that once made the airline great then good riddance to them and the airline.

  • Patrick Kilby

    says:

    Dear oh dear the comments on this blog beggar belief, and don’t let evidence get in the way of a good bit of prejucide. Yes I can see we don’t like Jetstar but the fact that it makes money mean somone must like it (and the Vietnam losses are misniscule and the tie in with Vieitnam ariways will secure it, note Vietnam airways is code share partner of Qantas as well). Second point: if Qaras is so bad why did Emirates make the approach? because Qantas had accass to two things Emirates doesn’t have: the Australian domestic market (and 9m frequent fliers) and importantly a whole lot of the European market. (to wit Gernany which is trung to block Emirates). So there are synergies there, and if Malaysia and Singapore were less potectionist they would have benefitted from competition as well. Josh’s phrase ‘QANTAS is dead’ with 65% of the domestic market, a 50 plane international operation, which is still the largest out of Australia, one of the most successful frequent fleir programs in the world. Can I suggest there are a lot of other airlines about, which are more dead, (if that is possible).

  • Air Observer

    says:

    I don’t think Qantas is by any means dead. But, I think Joyce is at best lousy at engaging with the Australian public (rather than shareholders), at worst the worse CEO the airline has seen. Would the airline be in the same position if Borghetti was CEO? I very much doubt it. Other airlines with the same operating costs (old established airlines) are making inroads despite the GFC. He has handled the airline’s staff (who have helped build the airline and who sincerely love Qantas for a much lower income!) like he handles the public. Like an iron fist in a velvet glove. I love Qantas, and that is why I am deservedly angry with the way our national carrier has been managed, despite assurances to the public upon its sale that it would be respectfully managed. The same assurances we get every damn time something generations of Australians worked to build, is carved up by these dung-merchants.

  • Peter

    says:

    The question is what is Joyce doing? It could be looked at this way,Joyce is making Qantas not a functioning Airline but no more than a Holding Company for Jet Star. The pride of Australia is fast loosing its proud icon and marketing appeal. I think it is time share holders to vote in mass to reject the Remuneration report and cause a spill of the Board. The share holders can get rid of the Chairman of the Board and replace the CEO with a person capable of running the Company thus returning once again to profit and the Pride of Australia.

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