Qantas boss on course for crash landing

Qantas Chief Alan Joyce
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has been lashed in the last week, marring the end to his tenure in the top job. Picture NCA NewsWire / Aaron Francis

Two and a half-billion dollars.

After 15 years at the helm, this was the bumper underlying profit result that outgoing Qantas boss Alan Joyce announced as he fronted the press pack for his final full-year financial report.

But what was meant to signal new beginnings, the end of pandemic-era delays and dysfunction, has instead catalysed customer anger and triggered a wave of controversy with Joyce at the centre of the storm.

As one of corporate Australia‘s most recognisable, and divisive, figures, it’s no surprise when he has staked his career at the national carrier by always being front and centre.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the airline without Joyce in the lead.

So when the airline’s current chief financial officer, Vanessa Hudson, was announced as the soon-to-be-minted chief executive in May, investors immediately questioned what a post-Joyce Qantas would look like.

But four months later, Hudson remains an unknown quantity.

The incoming CEO has been conspicuously absent since the profit announcement in late-August, with the company’s army of spin doctors and lobbyists shielding her from facing any controversy.

Instead, Joyce has copped a public shellacking in the press as the airline’s woes continue to stack up.

Qantas Chief Alan Joyce
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce was lashed during a senate hearing into the cost of living this week. Picture NCA NewsWire / Aaron Francis

Despite sustaining $7bn of pandemic-era losses and coming within the brink of financial collapse, Qantas’ $2.46bn eye-watering profit result has renewed on the airline to repay the $2.35bn in taxpayer support it received to stay afloat.

Indeed, it was Joyce, not Hudson, that gave the defiant refusal to return the Covid-era bailouts.

“Should we refund that? No, we provided a service,” Mr Joyce said.

The result is also supported by the firm’s decision to slash $1bn in structural cost amid faltering on-time performance and high cancellation rates.

While these measures have improved in recent months, it appears Qantas will wear customer discontent in an attempt to bolster its profits.

Of course, while shareholders and inventors will lap-up Qantas’ penchant for slashing costs, its customers not so much.

Then came Joyce’s appearance before a parliamentary inquiry into the cost of living, while Hudson was nowhere to be seen.

Incoming CEO Vanessa Hudson, who will take over from Joyce when he departs in November, has not been seen as the airline took a beating on multiple fronts this week. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Christian Gilles

Defending the indefensible, Joyce proclaimed the airline had done its best to refund pandemic-era flight credits, only to reveal later that they was $570 million in unredeemed travel credits due to COVID-19 cancellations, $200 million more than previously claimed.

Then there’s Qantas’ successful lobbying efforts to bar Qatar Airways from running an additional 28 flights to Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane.

Having shredded the government’s credibility – most notably that of Transport Minister Catherine King – it will undoubtedly be reluctant to give any fresh fodder to claims that it is playing favourites in the airline industry.

And with Treasurer Jim Chalmers recently launching a new review into Australia’s competition rules (which for a brief period Competition Minister Andrew Leigh said Qantas would be exempt from) it’s not a good look.

On Monday, the Prime Minister jets off to India and Indonesia for a week, leaving King as a sitting duck in Question Time.

Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese
Joyce’s close relationship with the government was also called into question when it was revealed Anthony Albanese’s son, Nathan, had a chairman’s lounge membership. Picture: NCA Newswire / Gaye Gerard

As the Greens and Coalition inevitably ride on the coat-tails of Qantas’ rock-bottom public sentiment, don’t expect the media headlines to end just yet.

If the shemozzle at Monday’s parliamentary inquiry is anything to go by, the task before Hudson, to rebuild the airline’s standing in political circles will take far more than complimentary memberships to the Chairman’s Lounge.

Qantas is also grappling with an ageing fleet, far older than its global rivals, leading to soaring maintenance costs and operational challenges.

While an additional 24 aircraft have been ordered as part of a broader fleet renewal program that includes plans for long-haul flights to destinations including London and New York, these are by no means a short-term solution to current shortages.

Ms Hudson will have a huge job on her hands when she takes over the airline, which is the subject of multiple court proceedings. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Andrew Henshaw

Meanwhile, some of Qantas’ planes sit mothballed in desert parking lots, as the airline struggles to keep up with surging demand.

Hudson will also have to contend with the airline being sued by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission for allegedly advertising tickets for thousands of flights it had already cancelled.

ACCC chair Gina Cass-Gottlieb revealed the watchdog would target a $250m payout from Qantas over the allegations in an interview with ABC’s RN program on Friday.

A current High Court appeal after the firm outsourced nearly 2000 baggage and ground handlers, and a multimillion-dollar class action over cancelled flights, both sparked from the Covid-19 pandemic, will add to mounting pressure.

Asked about how her leadership would differ from her predecessor, Ms Hudson earlier opined that she planned to repair the combative relationship between Qantas and several unions that had soured under Joyce’s leadership.

“I’m also looking forward to meeting unions and union leaders and I look forward to developing a constructive relationship with them for the benefit of our people, but also for the benefit of our organisation,” she said.

The Qantas Hudson inherits will be in a significantly stronger financial position but as the embattled airline faces a plummeting public standing, and a toxic political reputation in Canberra, an early exit for Joyce may be the best quick fix to cauterise the bleeding.

With Joyce and his influence looming large, it remains to be seen if Hudson can win back the trust of the flying public when she takes the reins later this year.