By Michael Mangano
Opinion: Qantas – Is It Really the Spirit of Australia?
Airlines have one thing in common: they are far from perfect. But when a flag carrier makes headlines for one fault after another, does it deserve that esteemed position? Over the past few weeks, Qantas has found itself in that very situation. From poor customer service, unfair treatment of flight crew, and even flights without passengers’ luggage, Qantas has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. This leads to an important question: is Qantas really the spirit of Australia?
Qantas, Australia’s flag carrier with an impeccable safety record, has long enjoyed a privileged place in global aviation. Qantas – Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Ltd – has grown into possibly the most iconic of all airlines. Kangaroo? Qantas. The red and white tail says all you need to know. Safety, reliability, and comfort – the spirit of Australia – and the slogan of its latest advertising campaign.
In recent weeks, however, this slogan has been called into serious question. Despite its recent television advertisement, with an ensemble cast of the most famous Australian faces and that Qantas choir, the reality making headlines is quite a contrast. The reader who so much as glances at Australian news would realize this truth. This reality is, in fact, enough to question if Qantas really does carry the spirit of Australia. So, does it?
Before an answer is given to this potentially volatile question, one must put on their deerstalker hat (it’s elementary, my dear Watson) and piece together the jigsaw that is laid before us.
Cracks in Qantas began to appear in the lead-up to this year’s Easter long weekend. Qantas passengers could barely withhold their righteous indignation when Qantas CEO Alan Joyce found a place to blame service delays at the airports – the passengers themselves. Although he quickly attempted to cover his tracks the very next day, the proverbial cat was out of the bag. Stating “our passengers are not match fit” for travel, a spark was lit which seems to have grown into a raging blaze and media storm.
The level-headed observer would wonder, quite rightfully, why such a simple statement could cause such anger. So what went wrong? The words in themselves reveal a symptom of a greater sickness – a flag carrier losing its footing.
Like every other airline around the world, Covid-19 hit Qantas hard. Australia’s airports experienced massive drops in passenger traffic, with Sydney Airport alone experiencing a 74% loss in international traffic and a 35.6% domestic loss (comparing March 2022 to the pre-Covid March 2019). Needless to say, a huge portion of that traffic would be Qantas flights. A loss of that magnitude means a similarly large financial loss for the airline, specifically $1.7 billion last financial year.
In handling this loss, Qantas’ executives received a 70% pay cut last year, mostly withheld bonuses. The real concern is how Qantas handles the money of those given credits for their flight cancellations. Last week, the Australian consumer advocacy group Choice lodged an official complaint with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) over “unfair terms and conditions on credit redemptions”. In a nutshell, Qantas’ credit policy means its holding onto $1.01 billion in credits, with only seven percent of Qantas customers using their credits and 19% of its budget airline Jetstar customers using theirs.
The actions of Australia’s flag carrier are hitting its passengers hard. The poor policy means that credits can only be used for equally-priced or more expensive flights. Found a cheaper flight? Looks like you’ll need to pay additional money since credits can’t be used for them. If calling the airline will help, brace – the wait times are hours long and sometimes result in a disconnection. Like a crescent moon after full, the reputation Qantas once enjoyed is beginning to wane.
The final nail in the coffin, in this writer’s opinion, is Qantas’ management of staff – or lack of. Passengers were already in disbelief over staff shortages. The long weekend saw entire flights leaving airports without any passenger luggage, with unions blaming this on outsourcing 2000 ground staff. An Australian federal court found the airline did so with some intent to clear union influence from its ranks.
News this week also noted some interesting methods of flight crew management. Australian employees were appalled that their shifts in some long-range flights had been swapped with employees from New Zealand. Attendants were photographed sleeping on seats under a blanket of, well, fabric (they were blankets). Under Australian fatigue laws, flight crew is protected from excessive fatigue by having fair rest requirements. They’re not unreasonable – they ask for a horizontal bed, clean rooms, and added days of rest depending on flight time and workload.
Qantas, for its part, did what the spirit of Australia calls for – employment of international staff to bypass Australian employee rights. It seems international employees don’t need that same care. For a carrier that carries the Australian spirit, it sure seems to be dropping it off mid-flight. If one is in the business of customer service, it’s self-explanatory that staff must be up to that task. In fact, it’s elementary.
As Qantas emerges from its slumber, it should be careful to not fall out of bed. Qantas, as a flag carrier, is responsible for more than the carriage of passengers – it carries a spirit. Australians are proud of their airline; the flying kangaroo is their symbol of connection with each other and the world. The humble beginnings have led to greatness, yet that greatness can easily be humbled.
What does the future of Australia’s flag carrier hold? This writer can only speculate, but I am yet to be convinced its reputation of old will stand. Perfection is pretty hard to achieve, but the standards which this airline upholds are a pretty good place to start.