By Mike Mangano
Opinion: The Airline Behind Its Own Demise
It is high time we address the elephant in the room: Qantas is its own worst enemy. From Australian icons to domestic disasters, the demise of Qantas has seen the airline assign blame to everything (and everyone) except itself. It’s little wonder, then, that the Flying Kangaroo is incapable of resolving its many issues — it cannot see that the wound in its foot is self-inflicted.
To be clear, this is not to say that all of Qantas is at fault here. The unsung heroes of the post-pandemic world are truly the nameless thousands of airline staff, many of whom are the flight crews and ground staff of Qantas. For many years, Australia’s flag carrier had a reputation of being the finest in the world, and just to get a job with Qantas was an achievement in itself. To fly for Qantas was to have joined the elite of aviators, the top percentage of the top percent. Heck, John Travolta would be your wingman!
Reflecting on its safety record, who could argue with the classic Rain Man scene? When Charlie says “Ray, all airlines have crashed at one time or another, but that doesn’t mean that they are not safe”, Raymond responds with “QANTAS. QANTAS never crashed.” To their credit, Qantas has never crashed — not yet.
To be fair, these are two very big ticks in two very big boxes for an airline. But it is the third box, alone and empty, which explains why Qantas will continue to slide down the dismal hill of disaster – the customer service box.
There is great irony in Qantas’ slogan, ‘the Spirit of Australia’. It’s the spirit that keeps Qantas aloft (or so it would believe with wishful thinking), and it’s all but absent from what was once Australia’s favorite airline. For an airline to claim itself as the personification of a national spirit — the spirit of its customer base — Qantas sure knows how to add injury to its insulted customers. Oh yes, literally insulted customers.
“Qantas sure knows how to add injury to its insulted customers.”
Proof that the first cut is the deepest, the rift began when airline CEO Alan Joyce suggested that its paying passengers were not “match fit” for travel. He might as well just call them stupid. For a time, it seemed that maybe all the delays and lost baggage were simply symptomatic of newly opened borders, but then that time ended.
Stage two began when the Australian Federal Court ruled that Australia’s largest airline illegally outsourced 2000 ground staff. Suddenly, it appeared the delays and lost baggage were caused, not by stupid passengers, but by the airline itself. Reinforcing the fact that its issues are the result of its own actions, the airline sent out managers and executives to aid in the logistical nightmare it had created. In keeping with its slogan, this suggested that “the spirit” of Qantas’ customer base had a thing for not arriving in Los Angeles despite the fact that the baggage had arrived.
For Australians who’ve long loved their airline, frustration has evolved into anger, and it seems those flames just blaze with whatever Qantas does next.
In an effort to save face, Joyce addressed the media to apologize. Stating that the airline hasn’t been “good enough,” he extended an apology, but quickly pointed the finger elsewhere, stating “while factors out of our control like weather can have an impact on our schedule, we expect things to keep improving each week.”
If things like “the weather” have been truly to blame, we are witnessing the supernatural: with a cancellation rate of 4.7% compared to competitor Regional Express’ 0.8% for August 2022, it would suggest that it storms only when Qantas flights are due to fly. The last time this writer checked, TRegional Express and Qantas both use the same airports.
With the airline evading responsibility with only a token apology, it seems it was only willing to promise a “plan” to return Qantas to its former glory, and an all but meaningless Frequent Flyers offer of $50 towards a return flight from Australia or New Zealand. The airline would be lucky if the offer was taken up. Painfully for many, Joyce’s apology statement fails to mention anything about the return of over $1 billion Australian Dollars it withheld from passengers with canceled flights.
As Qantas continues its evasive behavior, shying away from any genuine accountability, it has continued to prove it really has no care for its customer base. Little wonder, then, that its competitors – such as Rex – are thriving in the wake of Qantas’ disaster. Commenting on Qantas’ lack of customer service, Rex Deputy Chairman John Sharp AM stated: “Contrary to what other carriers want you to believe, shocking reliability and equally appalling customer service is not an inevitable outcome even in today’s very challenging environment,” adding that “we (Rex) are able to keep our OTP and cancellation rate close to pre-COVID levels.”
It is a statement that, despite coming from a competitor, is not without merit. The real spirit of any airline is its internal culture, and it’s no surprise that Qantas’ is unraveling into a mess. A recent report by Australia’s ABC found that staff within the airline “described a ruthless regime of cost-cutting and out-sourcing.” This is no lie.
The issues within Qantas’ culture began to show with news of flight crew having to sleep on rows of seats. Love them or not, Australia’s aviation fatigue laws require flight crew to have adequate rest and stop over time between flights. With these laws come, you guessed it, the added expense of accommodation, and so it was no real surprise to see Qantas was hiring staff from New Zealand in what seemed an effort to bypass these requirements. Evidently, so this culture would suggest, profits come before safety.
It’s worth noting that the culture of an airline is directly connected to its performance. Comparing Qantas cancellations to that of Hawaiian Airlines — an airline whose home base had similarly strict COVID lockdowns as Australia — the difference is massive. In June 2022, Qantas saw a 7.5% cancellation rate, while Hawaiian had canceled just 0.11% of its flights.
This writer’s recent review of Hawaiian found its positive company culture to be both a positive customer experience and positive safety culture. It’s a sobering analysis.
The numbers don’t lie; the issues Qantas faces are entirely the result of it having shot itself in the foot. For all its talk of ‘Operation Sunrise’, new fleet purchases and promises to improve, the evidence — presented by itself — seriously questions if it values its slogan. Qantas’ pomp of being the one airline to connect the abroad Australian with his home, using its rich Aussie heritage as its backbone, it finds itself wanting. Perhaps Qantas ought to buy a new mirror before a new fleet — it might even be tax deductible!