A mayday message from the flight deck for Qantas’ new CEO

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“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have breaking news from the flight deck: CEO Alan Joyce has just resigned and that’s all I have to say about that.”

I wasn’t aboard the same plane as Alice Workman when the news of Joyce’s early departure as Qantas CEO broke. I was flying a non-Qantas aircraft home from Vanuatu because I, and many of my fellow pilots and other staff, took redundancy during COVID.

I worked for Qantas for most of my flying career, the last quarter of a century as an international captain. I had the privilege to work for an airline with an unprecedented safety record, a record I managed to help maintain when, along with four other crew, I nursed the stricken QF32 back to Singapore when the A380 suffered an uncontained engine failure in 2010.

We were so proud of that safety record. It was Qantas’ calling card for many years, and it was brought about by like-minded staff who loved turning up to work. Whether it be check-in staff at the airport to service staff onboard, flying the planes or maintaining that complex piece of machinery between flights, we were masters of our craft.

This idyllic picture may be seen through rose-coloured glasses by a person no longer in the business. I will be accused of being a sentimental old fart. However, we built up that level of respect to the point that you, the travelling public, would trust us, the airline, to deliver you and your family to your destination safely and in comfort. You relied upon us. We were proud that you did. And we paid you back for that trust by serving you with the utmost dedication.

But the decline from those who would steer the Qantas ship from the boardroom rather than the cockpit has been on a downward trajectory for many years. This downward trajectory has been described as “moral blindness”, with a focus on the bottom line above all else.

David Evans at the controls. Vanessa Hudson now in control. Credit: Aresna Villanueva

The latest research from Roy Morgan shows how steeply Australians’ faith in Qantas has dropped, with its brutal workforce management, penny-pinching strategies and terrible recent customer service forcing it from the pedestal of one of the most trusted Australian companies to one of the most distrusted.

Roy Morgan CEO Michele Levine summarises this unprecedented decline in trust over the past few years as moral blindness everywhere, including:

  • Appalling call centre delays;
  • Cancelled flights and snail’s pace fare refunds;
  • Leaders turning a blind eye to the anguish of tens of thousands of once-trusting customers;
  • Refusing to pay back any of the $2 billion in corporate welfare, despite the company surging back to billion-dollar profitability post-COVID;
  • Australia’s competition regulator announced it was launching legal action against Qantas for allegedly selling tickets to thousands of flights in 2022 that had already been cancelled.

This blindness has evolved into the plane wreck that is Qantas today. Arrogance and lack of empathy towards those who would entrust their lives to you. The Flying Kangaroo’s slogan somehow changed from The Spirit of Australia to Profit Before Passengers. If you put such a sign outside its Mascot headquarters you would have a truth defence in any defamation case.

While all the commentary on Qantas has been about one man, I think it’s important that the incoming CEO remembers the airline built its reputation on the sum of its parts rather than accounting wizardry by the person at the top.

Vanessa Hudson has a corporate task analogous to the one my colleagues and I faced in the frantic cockpit of QF32 above Singapore. A misstep could prove fatal. The Spirit of Australia is about trust, which must be restored between the passengers and the airline.

My message to Hudson is to practise empathy. Open those lines of communication with your travelling clients and have the “Customer Care” centre actually engage with those clients. Simplify the online booking process, so it doesn’t require a degree in computer science to navigate. Do not praise your predecessor for his outstanding work, as under no metric do I consider his work outstanding. And above all else, give people their money back, without restriction, promptly, if for no fault of theirs you don’t fulfil your travel contract.

I hope that the steady hand of Hudson at the Qantas controls can turn around its moral compass and steer this Australian icon back on course.

David Evans was a Qantas pilot for 37 years.

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