Frank Zappa was always good for a quote. The legendary 60s jazz-rocker usually had something to say, mostly insightful, occasionally bizarre.
I always liked his quote about countries, and what defines them. “You can’t be a real country,” he said, “unless you have a beer, and an airline.”
It’s kind of a throwaway line, but it immediately rings true. Of course, it discounts all of those wonderful countries where they don’t drink beer, and he does go on to mention nuclear weapons, but let’s ignore that for a second. Here in Australia at least, we can understand it. We have plenty of different beers, and we’re pretty proud of them (if occasionally lovingly disparaging).
And we also have an airline. Qantas. Without even realizing it, we’re proud of Qantas, and what the airline says about us as a nation. This is a pioneering company, a successful company, a company that represents courage and adventure and ingenuity, and one that so many of us have experience with and a connection to.
We’ve all flown with Qantas. We all recognized that stylized kangaroo logo, we’ve all spotted it on a plane at a foreign airport and felt a sense of familiarity and joy. We all know the TV commercials. We all know the words to I Still Call Australia Home (even if Qantas changed them).
It’s for that reason, I think, that we as a nation have always cut Qantas a certain amount of slack in times of trouble. We need Qantas. It helps define us. It’s been part of our modern country’s foundation. We want this company to succeed and thrive. We want to see its plans at airports around the world.
But we’ve apparently reached the limit of that slack. The fall of Qantas, the brand, over the last few years has been incredible to watch. As far as wanton self-destruction of reputation in recent times goes, of just setting yourself on fire for no good reason, Qantas has probably only been topped by Russia. And maybe Louis CK.
It hasn’t all been the airline’s fault. There’s been a global pandemic which has been particularly brutal for the travel industry, and ongoing issues such as staff shortages and associated organizational dramas have been felt across the board.
But a lot of it has been Qantas’s fault. This is the airline that took an incredible amount of public money during the pandemic in the form of JobKeeper payments – $1.3 billion, up there with the most of any Australian company – but still sacked 6000 staff, and stood down a further 15,000.
Worse still, in August 2020 Qantas announced it would outsource its ground-handling operations at 10 Australian airports to third-party contractors, resulting in the loss of 1683 local jobs. That move was recently found to be illegal by the Federal Court, and is one many point to as the source of the company’s recent organizational woes (the case is now set to be appealed in the High Court.)
Qantas’s recent PR has been a disaster, too. When things started going seriously awry at Australian airports around Easter this year, when queues began backing up and flights were being delayed or cancelled, the company’s chief executive, Alan Joyce, famously blamed his customers for being “not match-fit”. The sentiment probably had a grain of truth to it, but this is simple stuff, it’s PR 101: in times of crisis, you don’t blame the customer.
That’s not an isolated issue, either. You could fly to Thailand in the time it takes to get someone from the Qantas service center to pick up the phone lately. The company’s on-time performance has been abysmal, worse than its competitors, even sister company Jetstar. Flights have been taking off without luggage due to avoidable, organizational mistakes. Passengers have been left stranded in foreign airports, forced to sleep on the floor, because flights have been canceled and no one from Qantas has been there to sort things out.
And after all this, you find out the Qantas executives recently awarded themselves bonuses worth more than $4 million for a job well done.
Public anger is bubbling over. If you care to listen to talkback radio you’ll find it filled with callers venting their frustration (because it apparently beats sitting on hold for seven hours), and the letters pages of Traveler have been overflowing with complaints about the national carrier. In the space of a few short years Qantas has gone from Australian icon to pariah.
You have to wonder how Qantas bounces back from here. Has any company managed to recover from such a dire position? Has any brand won back public affection?
The answer is yes, and it’s one you might recognize: Qantas.
Remember back in 2011? Qantas grounded its entire domestic and international fleet, causing monumental disruption for travelers throughout Australia and the world, because of an industrial dispute, after it announced plans to sack 1000 workers, even as Joyce was enjoying a 71 per cent pay rise.
But we grew to love Qantas once again. And we probably will this time, too. Because much as we hate to admit it right now, Australia needs Qantas. It makes us a real country.