Virgin Australia CEO Jayne Hrdlicka has this week reflected on her controversial comments that saw her name in headlines in May, for the first time since then.
In May this year, Hrdlicka suggested that once Australia hits major vaccination targets, the country will have to reopen its international borders, even if “some people may die”.
“We’re forgetting the fact that we’ve learnt how to live with lots of viruses and challenges over the years and we’ve got to learn how to live with this,” she said.
At this time, the federal budget suggested the government wasn’t seeking to reopen its borders to the rest of the world until mid-2022, and Hrdlicka’s comments were among the first made in public suggesting the country needs to adjust to the “new normal” and learn to live with the virus.
Notably, this was also a month prior to the severe Delta outbreaks that ultimately took hold of NSW and Victoria and plunged both states into months-long lockdowns.
Speaking this week with The Australian Financial Review, Hrdlicka agreed that while she could have worded her “some may die” comment better, since May the narrative has shifted majorly, allowing borders to reopen well ahead of plan thanks to strong vaccine uptake.
“It wasn’t my best couple of days, but the narrative shifted and that’s the most important thing,” Hrdlicka said.
“Sometimes there’s a catalyst to shift the narrative.”
The AFR stated Hrdlicka’s mention of being a “catalyst” might “suggest she feels a degree of vindication”, given the fact that outbreaks in NSW and Victoria ultimately proved her point of living with the virus, and opening up on vaccination rates alone.
It’s the first time the Virgin CEO has made a public comment on the controversy since the weeks immediately following the incident.
Within days of the initial speech and subsequent media uproar, Hrdlicka spoke at a press conference beside then-Deputy Premier Michael McCormack to address the issue.
“I absolutely understand my words, taken in isolation, were hurtful to some people,” she said. “If I had my time again, I would choose different words, to make the same point.”
“We are a domestic airline that is committed to keeping the community safe,” she added.
Her comments later became a national talking point, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison later speaking out to say the Virgin CEO’s comment was “insensitive”.
Morrison at that time said he was “not going to take risks with Australians’ lives” and would maintain a regime “that has so far avoided the loss of 30,000 lives”.
The eventual “shift in narrative” has meant that Virgin is now slowly restarting its international network and preparing to ramp up domestic operations as border restrictions ease.
“We’re standing everybody back up,” Hrdlicka said. “We’re really confident the direction of travel is now open. It will take three-to-six months to let the dust settle and then we’re all good.”
The airline has kept itself busy during the pandemic downtime, this week revealing its brand-new interior cabin design on its flagship Boeing 737 fleet.
The airline has already installed the newly upgraded cabins, which include enhanced business class seats, on two of its nine newly acquired Boeing 737-800 aircraft.
Similarly to Virgin’s existing 737-800 interior, the new cabin will contain eight business class seats up the front, however the new seats boast an extra recline of seven inches (17 centimetres), around 40 per cent more than existing business class seats.
In order to make room for these roomier business class seats, Virgin has removed one row of economy seats for the aircraft, with the upgraded 737-800 interior now hosting 162 economy seats as opposed to its predecessor’s 168.