I sent out a quick note about the surprise Qantas lockout/shutdown on Saturday. Curiously, this attracted some very negative comments – no, not about Qantas, but rather about me.
Some people claimed my ‘pro union bias’ was showing. Fortunately, other readers did an excellent job of defending me. Thank you.
Would that be the same ‘pro union bias’ I showed when castigating BA’s flight attendant union for their striking last year? The same ‘pro-union bias’ I show when sometimes complaining about pilots being overpaid?
Most of all, am I being pro-union biased for daring to suggest that airlines have a responsibility to operate their flights if at all possible, and if that is not possible, suggesting they should give as much notice to their passengers as possible? It appears likely that Qantas had been planning for this apparently sudden lockout for several weeks, but chose to give no notice to passengers (or to its crew or to anyone else) whatsoever.
Unions have to give airlines weeks of notice of their intention to strike. Why should not airlines need to give at least a few days notice to their employees and their passengers before they capriciously stop operating all flights?
Their sudden cessation of all flights, everywhere in the world, was nothing other than a rapacious act of bullying on Qantas’ part, to elevate their labor disputes from merely ongoing annoyances to themselves, to make it instead a matter of national urgency, forcing the Australian government to activate emergency measures to ‘throw Qantas in the briar patch’ it most wanted to be thrown in, ‘compelling’ the airline to return to work and forbidding the unions from continuing their industrial action. As such, it was a very clever move on Qantas management’s part – instead of a long slow argument with their unions, they got it all pretty much over and done with in 48 hours.
But they did so by thumbing their noses at due process, at the normal collective bargaining process, and by inconveniencing something in excess of 100,000 stranded passengers all around the world (numbers/estimates vary, but it was some number way in excess of 100,000).
Qantas might have won the battle with its unions, but it also might end up losing its war against Australia.
Qantas’ Evolving Approach to its Australian-ness
Ten and twenty years ago, Qantas was the most respected brand name in Australia, and while all Australians loved to grumble about their national airline, they were also fiercely proud of Qantas and its splendid international record of service, safety and success. They had every reason to be proud – the planes were gleaming inside and out, and the airline was universally respected all around the world for its high standards.
Indeed, Australia’s respect, admiration, and even love of Qantas was reciprocated by Qantas’ corporate pride in its Australian origins, and its proud history – an excellent safety record and the second oldest airline in the world (see the advertisements, below).
There was a third dimension to this love-fest as well. Everyone, just about everywhere in the world, likes Australia and Australians, and Qantas made a point of playing up its Australian-ness when selling itself to travelers from other countries who they hoped would choose Qantas for their travels to Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific.
Qantas would promote itself, including here in North America, as the airline to fly to Australia because ‘Your Australian experience starts the minute your board your Qantas plane in Los Angeles’. It was a popular concept that encouraged many Americans, tired of jaded lackadaisical service from the American carriers, to choose Qantas instead for the long flights to and from the South Pacific.
But that has all remarkably changed in less than a decade. Today, the numbers speak for themselves, without the need for any union bias in the interpretation of them. Qantas now has a mere 18% market share of international travel to and from Australia, and while it is still the largest domestic carrier in Australia, one has to wonder how much longer that will be the case.
Qantas’ desperate desire to leave its Australian roots behind (it even has an Irish CEO these days) are sitting increasingly uncomfortably with Australian travelers, and the sense of betrayal, both in general and most recently with its sudden global cessation of services last weekend, is tangible throughout Australia. Many people – whether stranded last weekend or not – are vowing to never fly Qantas again – it remains to be seen how many of those will truly stay away from Qantas, but the damage to the airline’s reputation is currently huge.
A revamped Virgin Australia is presenting Qantas with increased domestic competition, a Singapore Airlines subsidiary has also attempted to steal domestic market share from Qantas (albeit with mixed results thus far), and a brand new Australian airline, Air Australia started operating this week too (talk about perfect timing for the new startup!).
The paradox of this is that if Qantas sees its Australian base weaken, that will only encourage it to abandon its Australian roots all the more quickly. But how will this advantage the airline, overall? Qantas risks becoming an airline without a national base – a situation that few airlines can profitably operate from.
The Evolution of Qantas As Seen Through the Prism of its Advertising
An interesting insight into Qantas’ past and uncertain future is shown by looking at some of their television advertisements.
Here is one of what were an extensive series of television ads in (I believe) the 1970s starring ‘Sydney’ – a kangaroo, who complains about tourists inundating Australia, and who ends his complaints with the line ‘I hate Qantas’.
Alas, I can only find one of them on Youtube – I used to have a collection of ten or more when I owned my travel company (that specialized in travel to Australia). They were always one of the most popular parts of any presentation I would give.
Qantas could joke about itself this way because in truth no-one in Australia hated Qantas (or tourists, for that matter, either) – it was a well loved part of the Australian social structure and family.
Here is an advertisement from 1983 which drips quintessential Australian identity – ‘The Spirit of Australia’ being the Qantas tag line used.
It is hard to imagine a more proudly Australian advertisement, isn’t it.
The slogan ‘The Spirit of Australia’ was subsequently changed to ‘The Australian Airline’ and then was changed back to ‘The Spirit of Australia’ again.
Here is an advertisement from the late 1990s which almost brings tears to my eyes, and those of many Australians.
The most expensive Australian television ad ever made, it has a group of Australian children singing of their love of Australia. ‘I Still Call Australia Home’ was its tag line. Qantas then was still a vibrant and proud Australian company.
I would typically start a presentation with one of the Sydney the koala commercials talking about how he hated Qantas, sprinkle a few more through the presentation, but for the inspirational close, nothing could match this brilliant commercial, which Qantas produced in a number of different lengths and slightly different edits. (As an aside, this ad was an updated remake of an earlier Qantas ad in the 1980s, which can be seen here.)
And now, what of the present day? Two more videos for you to see.
First, here’s an ugly video featuring the awful man who is now Qantas’ CEO, Alan Joyce; who struggles to spin the changes he is trying to initiate as being good for Qantas and its customer base. He must be mentally crossing his fingers when he says ‘we will always be owned by Australians’ and ‘the vast majority of our operations will be based in Australia’ – two things that he seems keen to destroy as much as he can.
The ad closes with the bizarre spectacle of a man speaking with a mangled mix of a semi-Australian Irish accent saying ‘And we will always call Australia home’ – except for, of course, all the off-shore subsidiaries he is opening up. This is of course a sly reference to the brilliant ad series of the 1990s. Even the flying kangaroo was recently redrawn to make it more abstract and less obviously a kangaroo with wings.
Note the tag line – no longer is Qantas ‘The Spirit of Australia’. Instead it is now ‘There’s a new spirit’. No mention of Australia at all.
Lastly, here’s a spoof commercial that ‘re-purposes’ the wonderful ‘I Still Call Australia Home’ commercial with updated words and content.
Like many – maybe even most – Australians, this New Zealander is puzzled and saddened by Qantas’ ardent determination to turn its back on its Australian past and its desire to become a generic world carrier; its preference for generic staff and standards rather than highest standards and Australian staff.
And that is nothing to do with union bias, but all to do with management attitudes.
For much more detailed commentary on the entire Qantas debacle last weekend, you should read through some of the relevant blog entries on Ben Sandilands’ excellent Australian aviation themed blog, Plane Talking.
I found the photos he posted of the usually jam backed Qantas Club lounge at Sydney airport a couple of days after Qantas restarted service to be extraordinarily telling about the damage Qantas has inflicted on itself with its most valuable and most profitable frequent business travelers.
At this rate Qantas will indeed soon no longer be the spirit of Australia.