Qantas results leave questions for CEO ALan Joyce. Photo: Glenn Hunt
- Malcolm Maiden: On the bright side, Qantas shows signs of lift-off
- Qantas on look-out for international investor
- 'Confronting' : Qantas posts $2.8b loss
In his 2009 book, The Men Who Killed Qantas, Matthew Benns outlines how a cut-throat international aviation market had shifted the culture of Qantas away from aviators to bean counters by the late 1990s.
Ironically, Benns made what seemed to be a reasonable prediction at the time: that Jetstar wunderkind turned Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce would be the man to breathe new life into the airline.
Instead, five years on, it seems Joyce and his management team have given this national icon the kiss of death.
In the months before Joyce took over as Qantas boss in November 2008, Qantas posted a record $969 million profit. Today, Qantas announced a statutory loss of $2.8 billion on the back of hefty restructuring charges and writedowns to its fleet.
So, who really clipped Qantas' wings?
If you believe the Qantas spin machine (and believe me, it will be in frenzied overdrive) it's everyone else's fault, except, of course, that of Qantas.
Its excuses over the years have included an unlevel playing field, higher fuel costs, difficult unions, a high or low Australian dollar (Qantas has blamed both in recent years) to name but a few. Qantas' excuses for abysmal performance and grand plans for a turnaround just don't stack up.
Granted, the global financial crisis knocked international airlines hard in 2008/09, but why is it that three regional rivals have bounced back while Qantas has languished? From 2009 to 2013, Cathay Pacific made $3.8 billion in profit, Singapore Airlines $2.5 billion and Air New Zealand $358 million. In comparison, Qantas under Joyce's stewardship has made just $240 million, which will be more than wiped out by Thursday's expected losses.
Joyce has earned $22.2 million as chief executive and in the 2012-13 financial year his $5.1 million package matches the combined salaries of the Cathay, Singapore and Air New Zealand chiefs. Shareholder value seems inversely proportional to Joyce's pay packet. Qantas shares today are worth 40 per cent less than when Joyce took over.
And what about the plans to revive the Qantas Group? Jetstar domestically proved a treat; Jetstar internationally has been a toxic black hole. Idle planes sitting on the tarmac in France for a stalled Jetstar Hong Kong are the most recent symbol of a botched strategy in Asia.
At Senate inquiries, Qantas Group executives were defensive when I asked whether the Jetstar Asia offshoots would be technically insolvent were it not for multi-million dollar injections from the parent company.
Given current Australian accounting rules, which allow cost-shifting from one entity to another within group accounts, we may never know how much the Jetstar offspring has drained from its Qantas parent.
But we do know that in 2008 Jetstar had 36 aircraft to Qantas' 188 planes. Today, it's 115 to 122. It seems that while Qantas could carry Jetstar, Jetstar cannot do the same for Qantas.
The Qantas/Emirates alliance, which finally took off on April 1, 2013, was a key part of the strategy that Joyce said would turn around the fortune of Qantas' international operations.
Government figures reveal that there indeed has been a turnaround since the deal. In the 12 months since April 1, 2013, compared to the previous year, Qantas has gained only 2 per cent of passengers entering Australia; Emirates' passenger numbers have jumped 18 per cent.
What sickens me the most is the impact on the rapidly shrinking workforce of 30,000 Qantas employees, whose loyalty has been rewarded with mass lay-offs. Those Qantas workers, together with the 117,000 small investors in Qantas (holding 10,000 shares or fewer) will bear the brunt of decisions made by management.
But the Qantas fiasco is really a three ring circus. It doesn't just involve management and the board that is meant to oversee it; it also involves institutional investors, who have been eerily silent as they have stood by Qantas management.
When I asked Qantas in a Senate inquiry this year whether institutional investors received special access to information, the answer was that such briefings were "commercial in confidence". This is an insult to every small investor in the country. In a sharemarket, all shareholders should have equal access to information about a company's future.
How could Joyce spruik that line at the October 2013 AGM, that Qantas had a "clear strategy" that was "delivering results", yet just seven weeks later, seemingly out of the blue, announce an expected loss of up to $300 million. What of the small investors who bought shares on the strength of those AGM comments, only to see a 30 per cent fall just weeks later? Did they get the same briefings as institutional investors?
I hope our corporate watchdog ASIC has a forensic look at that, because what we are witnessing is not just the demise of a national icon. It is a system stacked against small investors who deserve to be better informed.
Nick Xenophon is an independent senator for South Australia.