Outgoing Qantas chief Alan Joyce leaves a mixed legacy with the airline, from forcibly grounding Qantas amid a long-drawn spat with unions, to cosying up to one-time rival Emirates in a wide-ranging partnership.
Joyce, who leaves the airline in November after 15 years at the helm, has been widely credited for helping turn the battered national carrier around more than once: first amid the global financial crisis, and more recently, steering the airline through the “unprecedented” coronavirus pandemic.
Yet, his popularity has taken a hit in recent years, amid massive layoffs and well-publicised operational snags, ironically as the airline emerged from the pandemic and rebounded to record profits.
It was in 1996 that Joyce’s foray into the Australian airline market began, when he left Irish flag carrier Aer Lingus to join now-shuttered Ansett Australia.
Four years later he joined rival Qantas, first in its network planning team before being appointed CEO of fledgling low-cost unit Jetstar in 2003. Subsequently, he was promoted to Qantas chief in 2008.
Right off the bat, Joyce had his work cut out for him: the airline was struggling financially – it had cut capacity and profit forecasts barely a week before Joyce took helm – amid deteriorating market conditions in the global financial crisis.
There was talk about merging Qantas with another carrier, alliance partner British Airways was a name appearing frequently, but that came to naught after the latter broke off talks. Joyce himself was also said to be unenthusiastic about the prospects of merging with BA, preferring instead a partner from the Asia-Pacific region.
A ‘SEISMIC SHIFT’ IN EMIRATES PARTNERSHIP
A sliver of hope for the ailing carrier came in the unlikeliest of partners: Middle East giant Emirates, which had for years on end been steadily expanding its foray into the Australian market and, more crucially, the lucrative Europe-Australia ‘Kangaroo Route’.
In announcing the partnership in 2012, Joyce hailed what he called a “seismic shift”, and the “most significant partnership” in the airline’s history, with Qantas “moving past the traditional alliance model to a new level” of partnerships.
The ten-year partnership, which began in 2013, saw Qantas’s ‘Kangaroo Route’ hub shifted from Singapore to Dubai. The move, Joyce argued, allowed the airline to have more freedom in its Asian network schedules, which hitherto had been “a subsidiary of the ‘Kangaroo Route’”.
The two airlines in 2021 extended their cooperation for another five years through 2028, underscoring the good working relationship.
JOYCE V UNIONS: THE STRIKES THAT GROUNDED AN AIRLINE
Yet, if Joyce brokered good relations with its one-time rival, he had far less luck with fostering a close relationship with employee unions, some of whom still regard him warily.
It was in 2011, the year before the Emirates partnership announcement, Qantas found itself embroiled in disputes with several employee unions, including those representing its pilots, ground and maintenance staff, over revised pay offers.
On 29 October 2011, Joyce took the dramatic step of locking out striking employees and shutting the airline’s international and domestic operations indefinitely.
Calling the move a “crisis for Qantas”, Joyce, in a strongly-worded statement, said: “If this action continues as the unions have promised, we will have no choice but to close down Qantas part by part.”
The move caught several parties – not least Canberra – by surprise, and divided opinions in the industry, with some applauding Joyce, while others warning of the longer-term repercussions.
More crucially, the ‘high-stakes poker game’ – as one industry watcher put it – set the tone for Joyce’s relations with the unions. The uneasy tensions surfaced again amid the coronavirus pandemic, when Qantas cut thousands of jobs as part of wide-ranging restructuring efforts to stay afloat.
The unions accused Joyce of using the pandemic to get rid of some of its highest-paid employees, and took the airline to court over the firing of more than 1,000 ground staff. The Australian court later ruled the axing unlawful.
THE COVID CRISIS, AND THEN SOME
A large part of Joyce’s legacy at Qantas is indeed intertwined with Covid-19: after all, Joyce’s tenure was - for the final time - extended through 2023 for him to see the airline through the pandemic and into recovery.
Qantas plunged to its worst ever financial performance during the onset of the pandemic, as Australia locked down and shut its borders to international travel.
Joyce oversaw a pandemic-led airline restructuring exercise in 2020, which saw it retire its Boeing 747s and lay off 6,000 staff. The three-year plan, he argues, will help bring significant cost savings to the airline.
The exercise bore fruit financially, with the airline returning to profitability in the six months to 31 December 2022, but also deepened the divide with the unions.
After a series of false starts, the airline finally resumed some levels of international flying in early 2022, while domestic capacity saw a rapid ramp-up through the middle of the year.
Yet, Joyce would again face another round of challenges, when Qantas in mid-2022 was beset by a series of operational woes, from long wait times at airports, to delays and lost baggage. Calls for Joyce to resign to take responsibility for the subpar service standards grew fast and furious, but the defiant airline chief did not back down.
In prepared comments issued in August, Joyce offered his apologies for the travel chaos: “We’re the first to admit we haven’t gotten everything right lately.”
At the same time, he painted the airline’s woes as something reflective of the wider industry: “The pandemic has tested everyone…and aviation has been sorely tested.”
Joyce, who pledged to invest more in recruitment and to buffer against future snags, said: “It simply wasn’t good enough, and for that, we have apologised.”
Another hallmark of Joyce’s stint is one that has yet to be realised: ultra-long-haul flying.
Joyce in 2017 rolled out ‘Project Sunrise’, the airline’s highly-anticipated plan to operate non-stop flights between Australia’s east coast and New York and the UK. These services, Joyce said, would “make almost any city in the world just one flight away from Australia.”
“It’s the last frontier and the final fix for the tyranny of distance that has traditionally challenged travel to Australia,” Joyce said. The airline ran a series of test flights in 2019, flying between from New York and London to Sydney, to gather data on ultra-long-haul services.
While original plans called for the ultra long-haul flights by 2022-2023, the coronavirus pandemic put pause on Qantas’ ambitions.
It was only in 2022 that the airline committed to its preferred aircraft type – the Airbus A350-1000 – for the service, and with it, a revised launch timeline of 2025.
It is perhaps ironic, then, that Joyce’s career sunset should come before the dawn of Project Sunrise.