The former chief executive of Qantas subsidiary Jetstar Japan has officially started his new role at rival Virgin Australia’s loyalty program Velocity, following a months-long court battle.
Reports suggested Nick Rohrlach completed his first day as the new CEO of Velocity on Monday, after previous employer Qantas spent months attempting to delay his start date.
Qantas began legal action against Rohrlach’s move in March after the executive accepted a senior role at Qantas Frequent Flyer, before ultimately taking the top job at Velocity. Rohrlach was planned to begin his role with Virgin in May.
Qantas argued in court that “highly sensitive” information had been shared with Rohrlach during his onboarding process at its own loyalty program, which the airline feared he would share with rival Virgin upon taking up his new position.
The case was heard in the Supreme Court of Singapore, where Qantas attempted to compel the court to legally enforce a six-month non-compete clause within his employment contract.
On top of three-months notice, this would see Rohrlach’s first day delayed by over nine months, to 18 September.
After Qantas successfully won a last-minute injunction to stop the ‘defecting’ new Velocity CEO from starting his job in March, sending Rohrlach on gardening leave until the court matter was resolved, or until the nine months was complete.
The six-month gardening leave ended on Saturday, meaning Rohrlach was free to start his new role at Velocity on Monday.
Qantas’ injunction win was significant, given it lost two previous cases requesting to hold the full hearing in Australia rather than Singapore, whose courts traditionally favour employees.
Virgin reacted to the injunction ruling by issuing a statement saying it “categorically denies allegations that it has been anything but proper and appropriate” and is confident it will be “vindicated” in court.
“We look forward to welcoming Mr Rohrlach to the Virgin Australia family with open arms and showing him why we are Australia’s most loved airline with a winning team that attracts the very best,” the business said at that time.
The case was complicated by the fact that Rohrlach signed the Velocity contract in Singapore, and also applied for anti-suit protection there to stop Qantas from enforcing an extended start date.
Qantas argued in the NSW Supreme Court initially that the case should be held in Australia because subsequent agreements nullified another clause in the contract to only allow legal action to take place in Singapore.
It also argued holding it in Australia would be more convenient to all parties.
However, Justice David Hammerschlag said in the first hearing that Qantas only “faintly” argued its case and said its submission was “unsustainable”.
“The choice of jurisdiction is clear,” Justice Hammerschlag said. “There is no challenge to the jurisdiction of Singapore … that the proceedings have to be conducted remotely and that the parties will be separated from their Australian lawyers are matters of mere inconvenience. Remotely conducted proceedings have been the order of the day for more than a year now.”
The judge ordered Qantas to pay Rohrlach and Virgin’s costs.
Qantas then called the manner of Rohrlach’s defection “an inglorious sequence of events” before its rival hit back by arguing that it was disappointed “the dominant market player” had “chosen to attack us rather than get on with the job at hand”.
“At this particularly critical juncture, with vaccines rolling out and new virus variants emerging, Australian airlines need to work to get our country flying again,” Virgin added.
Qantas then lost an appeal in March to hear the case in Australia.