Billy Adams: Move seen as trashing brand

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From the flying kangaroo to the boxing kangaroo. And few saw the Qantas king-hit coming.

The aim was to smash the unions but tens of thousands of dumbfounded travellers felt most pain.

From distressed mothers denied reunions with their kids to jockeys trying to get to today's Melbourne Cup, chief executive Alan Joyce couldn't have annoyed more people if he'd tried.

Forget the race that stops the nation, this was the airline that stops the Commonwealth. Scores of leaders, ministers and officials in Perth for Chogm were left in the lurch.

Even the Kings of Leon got stuck. "Dear Qantas, U suck," tweeted stranded drummer Nathan Followill.

In Canberra, eventually, after air force planes scrambled to bring ministers back from the west, Government bigwigs privately seethed. "An act of industrial terrorism," one told the ABC.

Yet despite the distress and the tears, the tens of millions down the economic plughole and a once-iconic corporate reputation following fast in its wake, the little Irishman remained convinced he was wholly in the right.

"For me it's all about doing the right thing for Qantas," he said yesterday. "Once you've made the decision ... there is absolutely full commitment to that."

He may be small in stature and have a head more suited for numbers than numbing blows, but opponents concede Joyce matches a street fighter in cunning and focus. In one recent interview the 45-year-old described himself as "very competitive" and "very driven"; a super high-achiever from working-class Dublin stock who graduated with honours from Trinity College, and from an airline desk job to today's A$5 million ($6.49 million)-a-year chief executive.

His sudden grounding of the entire Qantas fleet on Saturday gave off more than a whiff of a win-at-all-costs, to hell with the consequences mentality.

It was the most extraordinary move yet in a bitter industrial dispute that is at its heart a battle of ideologies.

Negotiations over pay and conditions with unions representing pilots, engineers and other ground staff have dragged on for months.

But it is Joyce's desire to cut jobs and costs in Australia, while setting up two new airlines in Asia, that has driven a recent spate of rolling strikes.

He studied maths and physics, and put the knowledge of numbers to good use as the first CEO of Qantas' successful low-budget airline, Jetstar.

He insists the planned shift is vital to rescue the Flying Kangaroo's loss-making international operations and long-term viability.

Union leaders don't believe last year's reported operating losses of A$200 million, which stood in stark contrast to record overall profits.

They're more interested in another figure - A$400: the monthly pay, they claim, of some Asian-based cabin crew flying into Australia on another Qantas offshoot, Jetstar Asia.

That is a harbinger, they say, of an airline determined to maximise profit to the last cent, and no longer call Australia home.

Joyce, who insists the country needs a "strong" Qantas, seems unperturbed by the timing and extent of his own 71 per cent pay rise, which was given the tick of approval at last Friday's annual meeting.

"Per hours worked, I am not the [company's] highest-paid employee," he has told the Sydney Morning Herald. "The A380 captains are."

A year ago one of them, Captain Richard Champion de Crespigny, was widely credited with averting tragedy when he made an emergency landing in Singapore after an engine exploded.

Move seen as trashing the brand

It was the most high-profile in a series of recent mid-air scares that have dented public confidence and the company's stellar safety record.

Yesterday marketing experts said the mass grounding had trashed the previously envied Qantas brand.

"What they have forgotten about is the passengers, and they are collateral damage in all of this," former Saatchi & Saatchi creative director Mike Newman told the Australian.

Qantas may prevail in its fight with the unions. The two sides have up to 42 days to negotiate a settlement before the industrial relations umpire, Fair Work Australia, imposes one on them.

Employment law professionals say the independent body is unlikely to rule on areas outside pay and conditions for existing staff.

"I don't think it can prevent Qantas from contracting out services or from moving services," University of Sydney labour law expert Ron McCallum told the ABC. "It would be a very brave arbitrator to try and step across that line."

But at what cost for Qantas?

Industry analysts believe the radical strategy is driven by chairman Leigh Clifford, who gained a reputation as a union-buster at mining company Rio Tinto. But Joyce is likely to take the fall if the plans unravel.

The Government is refusing to publicly take sides, but furious ministers are said to be pledging payback.

Newman, who has worked on several airline advertising accounts, said Qantas had given Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson "the greatest gift ever".

"The irony is this move was about extending Qantas overseas to make it strong, but this will do the opposite. To leave travellers around the world stranded is simply unthinkable."

- NZ Herald

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