Can the airline (again) recover from the brand damage?

Frank Zappa was always good for a quote. The legendary ’60s jazz-rocker usually had something to say, mostly insightful, sometimes bizarre.

I’ve always loved 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, that doesn’t take into account all those wonderful countries where you don’t drink beer, and he goes on to mention nuclear weapons, but let’s ignore that for a second. Here in Australia at least, we can understand that. We have a lot of different beers, and we’re quite proud of them (even if we sometimes lovingly disparage them).

And we also have an airline. Quantas. Without even realizing it, we are 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, adventure and ingenuity, and a company that so many of us have experience and connection with.

We have all flown with Qantas. We all recognize this 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 TV commercials. We all know the words for I always call Australia home (even though Qantas has changed them).

It is for this reason, I think, that we as a nation have always cut off Qantas some breathing room in times of crisis. We need Qantas. It helps us define ourselves. This is part of the foundations of our modern country. We want this business to succeed and prosper. We want to see his planes at airports around the world.

But we have apparently reached the limit of this slack. The downfall of Qantas, the brand, over the past few years has been incredible to watch. When it comes to the gratuitous self-destruction of reputation lately, setting themselves on fire for no good reason, Qantas has probably only been surpassed by Russia. And maybe Louis CK.

It wasn’t all the airline’s fault. There has been a global pandemic that has been particularly brutal for the travel industry, and persistent issues such as staff shortages and associated organizational dramas have been felt at all levels.

But that’s largely Qantas’ fault. It’s the airline that has taken in 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 business – but still has laid off 6,000 employees and resigned another 15,000.

Worse still, in August 2020, Qantas announced that it would outsource its ground handling operations at 10 Australian airports to third-party contractors, resulting in the loss of 1,683 local jobs. This decision was recently ruled illegal by the Federal Court and is one of many points at the root of the company’s recent organizational problems (the case is now set to be appealed to the High Court ).

Qantas’ recent PR has also been a disaster. When things started to go wrong at Australian airports around Easter this year, when queues started to pile up and flights were delayed or cancelled, the company’s chief executive, Alan Joyce, said reproached its customers for “not corresponding”. The sentiment probably had some truth to it, but it’s simple, it’s PR 101: in times of crisis, don’t blame the customer.

Nor is it an isolated problem. You could be flying to Thailand in the time it takes for someone at the Qantas service center to pick up the phone lately. The company’s punctuality was abysmal, worse than its competitors, even sister company Jetstar. The flights took off without baggage due to avoidable organizational errors. Passengers have been left stranded at overseas airports, forced to sleep on the ground as flights were canceled and no one from Qantas came to sort things out.

And after all that, you find that Qantas executives recently handed themselves bonuses worth over $4 million for a job well done.

Public anger is boiling. If you care to listen to Talkback radio, you’ll find it filled with callers expressing their frustration (because it apparently beats on hold for seven hours), and the pages of letters from Traveler overflowed with complaints against the national carrier. In the space of a few years, Qantas has gone from Australian icon to pariah.

You must be wondering how Qantas bounces back from here. Has any company managed to recover from such a disastrous situation? Has a brand regained the public’s affection?

The answer is yes, and it’s one you might recognize: Qantas.

Remember in 2011? Qantas has grounded its entire domestic and international fleet, causing monumental disruption to travelers across Australia and the world, due to a labor dispute, after announcing plans to lay off 1,000 workers, even as that Joyce was getting a 71% pay raise.

But we’ve come to love Qantas once again. And we probably will this time too. Because as much as we hate to admit it right now, Australia needs Qantas. It makes us a real country.




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