Qantas boss Alan Joyce says fuel prices falling more quickly than the Australian dollar are helping revive the airline's international division but he's not putting a date on when it will be out of financial trouble.
He said a A$2 billion transformation programme was giving savings of A$600 million this year but more work was needed to build towards sustainable growth in international business - Qantas' Achilles heel.
"Once we get the international business back into profitability, then we'll look at growth opportunities for acquiring new aircraft," Joyce said.
"Obviously with Auckland-LA and other routes we would need more aircraft to do that."
Qantas withdrew from the route two years ago at the start of a cost-cutting programme and since then, Air New Zealand has had direct flying to the United States to itself.
The Australian airline reported a A$2.84 billion statutory loss in the past financial year, largely as a result of writing down the value of planes and other asset impairment charges, mainly in the international airline.
It also announced the axing of 5000 jobs and is about halfway through the process.
Joyce, who has been Qantas chief executive since 2008, said he was not going to put a date on getting the airline's house back in order.
"We're not out there with a forecast but we'll keep the market informed," he said. "It depends on the head winds and the tail winds - fuel prices are significantly down but you never know."
Last year, fuel cost A$250 million more than the previous year, far worse than the airline expected.
Fuel prices had dipped dramatically during the past month and Qantas would start to reap the benefits towards the end of the year, he said.
"In November-December we should get around a A$20 million benefit on fuel and in the second half of the year we should get a substantial benefit if they continue at these levels."
The 94-year-old airline has high labour costs, got drawn into a no-win domestic capacity war and has made some bad fleet decisions.
It has been operating at a cost disadvantage to Asian and Middle Eastern airlines which with their more efficient operations have flooded into Australia to take advantage of a surge in outbound international travel and healthy Australian dollar yields.
Joyce said the recent fall in the value of the Australian dollar against the US currency had been helpful and it would be ideal if fell further.
"Because the fuel price is dropping faster than the [Australian] dollar we're positive on fuel. The big impact we find is that fewer foreign carriers want to come into Australia."
Foreign capacity growth in the Australian market was 44 per cent between 2009 and this year, compared with global capacity growth of 29 per cent.
Joyce said the falling dollar had made Australia less attractive to foreign carriers and resulted in 3 per cent capacity growth this year, and that had a "huge" impact on the international business.
The Australian dollar has slid from around US$1.10 in 2011 to below 90c now.
There had been more than six months of positive yield on international routes as a result of changes to schedules and new services such as using an Airbus A380 on the Sydney-Dallas Fort Worth service.
"As the Aussie dollar comes down, people decide to stay in Australia for their holidays and with 65 per cent of the Australian domestic market and 20 per cent of the international market we get disproportionate benefit on domestic travel."
On the domestic front - where Qantas has been targeted by Virgin Australia - Joyce said capacity growth had slowed and his airline's yields had stabilised.
Qantas also has about 80 per cent of government and corporate business.
Virgin Australia's costs are about 15 per cent lower than those of Qantas, but Joyce said his airline had had its first positive yield for September "for some time" and costs were coming down.
"We're very comfortable with our domestic position."
Virgin fired another shot in the customer loyalty battle on Monday, announcing a deal with BP to reward frequent flyers who fill up with the petrol chain.
The rivalry is stepping up with Qantas about to introduce bigger, and more varied economy class meals and Virgin to introduce business-class cabins on the route.
?Grant Bradley interviewed Alan Joyce while in Sydney courtesy of Qantas.
Airline boosts China ties
Qantas is deepening ties with Chinese airlines, announcing a joint venture with China Eastern which it says marks the start of a deeper level of commercial co-operation on flights between Australia and China.
In the past year Qantas has also done code-share deals with China Southern and China Airlines.
The China/Australia free-trade agreement is expected to increase flows of business traffic between the two countries as well as the movement of freight.
Under the joint venture, the airlines aim to support the growing trade, tourism and corporate travel links between Australia and China.
It is designed to complement the Qantas-Emirates partnership for Europe, the Middle East and North Africa and the Qantas-American Airlines partnership for the United States.
Air services have been identified as critical to the development of strong economic ties between the two countries.
China is Australia's largest two-way trading partner in goods and services, its largest goods export destination and its largest source of merchandise imports. China is Australia's most valuable inbound tourism market -- projected to contribute up to $9 billion annually by 2020.