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Published in The Drum 18 August 2011 and The Canberra Times 19 August 2011

Qantas is on the cusp of at best reverting to a purely domestic airline or at worst going broke. The current CEO, Allan Joyce, was handed a poison chalice when he took on the job.

Faced with falling revenues, despite monopoly or duopoly rights on most long haul routes, the previous CEO, Geoff Dixon, sought to bully staff, shareholders and the travelling public into accepting a deal that would have seen a leveraged buyout of the airline. A buyout that would have seen the airline go offshore to Shanghai or Beijing.

The deal was a product of the over-heated financial markets pre the GFC. It was proposed at the height of the private equity boom. Some saw the deal as smoke and mirrors, but clearly not Dixon and the Board of Qantas, many of whom are still serving. The proposed arrangement collapsed, allegedly because a US based hedge fund manager failed to submit his acceptance in time. Analysts claim that had the deal gone ahead Qantas would have collapsed in 2009 under the weight of debt and a collapsing cash flow.

Announcing another smoke and mirrors deal Joyce has told the market and customers that Qantas is still labouring under debt and that the dubious proposals announced to move offshore will clear this problem for shareholders.

Really! It is unlikely that abandoning Australia will reverse the fortunes of Qantas. Where is the money coming from to fund the off-shore airline based somewhere in the region with, we are told, a proposal to buy new aircraft?

Joyce could talk the leg off an iron pot. The blarney flows without the aparent interruption or check of intellect. Joyce gives off an air of desperation; the need to create the impression of future success. Is this being done so that he can apply for other corporate opportunities?

Qantas is in a tail spin and no one is giving the crew clear instructions as to what is going on, what they should do or what they might be able to do to help avoid a prang.

Retired General Cosgrove is on the board. Surely he appreciates the need to look after the troops, keep them fully informed and maintain morale if the airline is to deliver the standard of service expected. After all it has been the staff of Qantas that has maintained the brand and the faith of the travelling Australian public in the airline.

I started flying commercially in the 1950’s, first on DC 3’s then DC 4’s, Viking’s, DC 6B’s, and so on. In flight service was service; nothing very flash, but pleasant and courteous.

Subsequently I would have flown around million kilometres or more on a range of airlines, many no longer operating. I have flown into Afghanistan in the 1980’s when Indian Airlines flew on a wing tip from 6,000 metres to the ground in order to avoid stinger missiles and I have flown in Africa when aircraft safety standards were not as high as they are today.

About four years ago I decided that I would not fly Qantas again, on grounds of safety and service.

I think what I resented was the false familiarity, increasingly engaged in by some cabin staff. The egalitarian branding of service, that gradually morphed into an attitude that cabin staff were doing a favour by merely doing their job.

Recently I had to break my rule and travelled to Hong Kong on Qantas. I took a jacket with me on board. I asked if I could hang it and was told the hanging space was full. I scrunched it into an overhead locker. On arrival I watched what came out of the coat locker and yes they were jackets that the crew laid claim to.

The crew on the outwards flight seemed tired and some clearly lacked training in the art of service.
The return flight was no better. The mail cabin staff appeared to have come straight out of a shearing shed. Brusqueness coupled with a real or assumed ockerism was apparently de rigueur.
Down the aisle went the gun shearer calling out to no one in particular “Chinese tea anyone, Chinese tea”, yeah, well no thanks mate.

At the end of the flight I gave the bruiser a wan smile and a nod and he looked straight through me. I guess that is fair enough, I was travelling stock class and that was how I had been made to feel, just a dumb sheep on a transporter.

I don’t blame the staff or crews. Clearly there is a lack of leadership on the part of the board and senior management. I was in the army myself. Crew morale is poor, it needs lifting; clear guidelines, a sense of direction and maintenance of proper standards of service and behaviour would help.

Qantas clearly has some people of ability. Captain Richard de Crespigny demonstrated this when he saved 466 passengers in November 2010 on an A380 flight, QF32. No. 2 engine spectacularly failed over the Indonesian island of Batam causing damage to the nacelle, wing, fuel system, landing gear and flight controls. Passengers were fulsome in their praise of the Captain and the manner in which the crew handled the crisis.

No doubt the human talent and skills are still to be found amongst Qantas employees, but they are being poorly handled. They constitute the biggest asset Qantas has and they are being treated worse than some of their passengers.

Rather than allowing Joyce’s flights of fancy to turn Qantas into a memory, a quavering chimera out at Longreach, the board of Qantas should pull themselves together and axe Joyce. There are other people available with the talent, not only to run the airline, but to turn its fortunes around on shore.

Bruce Haigh is a retired diplomat and political commentator.