A mountain of complaints: Why once-iconic Qantas needs a systematic overhaul


Source: Unsplash/Hanson Lu

Outgoing Qantas CEO Alan Joyce may have been beloved of financial markets and the right-wing media, but what might be called “the Joyce model” — underinvestment, attacks on workers, gorging on taxpayer handouts, trying to undermine competitors, offering appalling service and blaming customers when they complain — is looking more and more rotten as his long-delayed (how appropriate!) departure in November nears.

Earlier this year Sydney Airport exposed one of Joyce’s anti-competitive tricks, pointing out that Qantas sought slots for significantly more than its 2019 capacity, but then cancelled vast numbers of flights, leaving competitors without slots. (Virgin also cancelled flights, but had sought only 95% of its 2019 capacity.)

After former Transport Workers’ Union head and now Senator Tony Sheldon had a crack at Qantas, the airline responded on Monday by saying it was all the fault of Sydney’s weather — which at least makes a change from blaming travellers.

The Australian Financial Review — which was banned from Qantas lounges because Joyce didn’t like Joe Aston regularly pointing out his flaws — reported today that the airline industry’s complaints “advocate” has been sitting on a report showing a mammoth surge in airline customer complaints in 2022. Unsurprisingly, Qantas dominated the complaints. The airline’s response — things are all better now, don’t worry about what happened in 2022.

But Qantas is the most complained-about company in the country, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) reported earlier this year. It was using its duopoly with Virgin to gouge customers, the ACCC said in June.

Just to make it a real red-letter day for Qantas, the Herald Sun this morning revealed a misogynist online group operated by male Qantas pilots — allegedly as part of a thriving sexist culture within the airline, partly directed at incoming CEO Vanessa Hudson.

Whether the Herald Sun will now be banned from Qantas lounges remains to be seen. The airline no longer inflicts far-right Sky News on lounge members, but forces passengers using Wi-Fi to see News Corp content. That means exposing passengers to racist garbage and lies about the Voice to Parliament as part of a “complimentary service”, despite the airline’s standard corporate puffery about respect and acknowledgement of Indigenous Australians.

Aston’s criticism of Joyce apparently required special intervention, but racism and misinformation are provided as a standard feature.

As Michael Sainsbury pointed out in Crikey on Monday, Australians angered at the systematic trashing of Qantas as a reliable quality airline and its incessant attacks on its own workforce might be wondering why the Albanese government is bending over backwards to protect Qantas from competition by refusing applications from Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines to add international capacity.

Labor has also allowed the ACCC’s airline monitoring brief to lapse, meaning there is no regular oversight of the kind that identified Qantas’ price-gouging.

And the government — despite Sheldon’s fulminations — is also resisting doing anything about the lack of a genuinely independent complaints body for airlines. The ACCC called for an industry ombudsman in June (as well as fines for cancelling flights) but the government is delaying any consideration of an independent complaints body until 2024.

It continues a pattern whereby governments of both stripes seem to regularly elevate Qantas’ interests above the public interest. With government protection like that, it’s unsurprising that Qantas believes it can do whatever it likes — and maybe that won’t change once Joyce has left the departure lounge.

This article was first published by Crikey.


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