Qantas has untold baggage from years of Alan Joyce

Over and out: Alan Joyce departs Qantas early

Grounded fleets, illegal job cuts and multimillion-dollar bonuses: Alan Joyce’s 15-year tenure at the helm of Qantas had it all.

When 57-year-old Mr Joyce announced on Tuesday he would leave the strife-hit national carrier two months early, he made it clear he knew public opinion wasn’t on his side.

“In the last few weeks, the focus on Qantas and events of the past make it clear to me that the company needs to move ahead with its renewal as a priority,” he said.

“The best thing I can do under these circumstances is to bring forward my retirement and hand over to [incoming boss] Vanessa Hudson and the new management team now.”

But Mr Joyce maintained there was much he was proud of in his 22 years with the Qantas group – “including the past 15 years as CEO”.

“There have been many ups and downs, and there is clearly much work still to be done, especially to make sure we always deliver for our customers,” he said.

Since joining the flying kangaroo in 2001, Mr Joyce has weathered criticism, controversy and a pandemic before announcing his resignation earlier this year.

He leaves Qantas banking bumper profits, but also with a diminished reputation from the one he inherited when it was regarded as one of the world’s premium carriers.

New beginnings

Mr Joyce arrived at Qantas from the now-defunct Ansett Australia, having previously worked for Aer Lingus in his native Ireland.

In 2003, he took the top job at Jetstar. Under his leadership, Qantas’s budget wing expanded services to New Zealand, combined with Jetstar Asia and acquired a stake in Pacific Airlines, which was relaunched as Jetstar Pacific.

In November 2008, Mr Joyce replaced Geoff Dixon as Qantas CEO. It wasn’t long before he was locked in a battle with his employees.

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Alan Joyce’s time as CEO brought widespread conflict with his employees. Photo: AAP

Qantas controversies

Following weeks of industrial action by pilots, ground staff and engineers in 2011, and with more than 600 flights cancelled worldwide, Mr Joyce made a drastic decision.

He grounded Qantas’s entire fleet of 101 aircraft in 22 airports across the globe. Indefinitely.

“We are locking out until the unions withdraw their extreme claim and reach an agreement with us,” he said at the time.

“It’s an unbelievable decision, it’s a very hard decision … we have no alternative. This is the fastest way to ensure the airline gets back in the air.”

The dispute over pay, conditions and outsourced jobs put Mr Joyce at war with the Transport Workers Union, the Australian and International Pilots Association and the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association.

“They are trashing our strategy and our brand,” he claimed.

“They are deliberately destabilising the company and there is no end in sight.”

Mr Joyce ultimately won the dispute, giving few concessions after Fair Work Australia rejected the unions’ pay demands in August 2012.

In 2013, after Qantas posted a $252 million six-month loss, Mr Joyce took another drastic step. He cut 5000 full-time jobs, froze wages and dumped flight routes to slash costs by $2 billion, having stared down his employees and held his nerve throughout widespread industrial action.

From 2012 until the pandemic brought Qantas to a halt in March 2020, Mr Joyce pocketed $75 million in remuneration while workers suffered pay freezes and job cuts.

In 2017, Mr Joyce copped a pie to his face during a speech – although the attack was unrelated to Qantas.

Tony Overheu, who later admitted to four charges, including assault, slammed a lemon meringue pie into Mr Joyce’s face as a protest against the openly gay CEO’s $1 million donation to the campaign for same-sex marriage in Australia.

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Alan Joyce gets publicly pied over his support for gay marriage. Photo: TND

The pandemic

In 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic wrought global upheaval, Mr Joyce had his tenure extended until at least 2022 by the Qantas board.

When borders closed in April 2020, the airline stopped international flights and cut domestic routes to just 5 per cent of capacity.

Mr Joyce defended his decision to cut more than 6000 jobs and stand down another 15,000 employees without pay, despite billions of dollars in taxpayer cash going to Qantas.

“Right now, all airlines are in the middle of the biggest crisis our industry has ever faced,” he said at the time.

“Airline revenues have collapsed, entire fleets have been grounded and the world’s biggest carriers are taking extreme action just to survive.”

When travel eventually resumed, there was chaos at Australia’s airports. Baggage handlers who had been retrenched were not replaced, and any semblance of good customer service collapsed, leaving passengers wondering where their money had gone.

Flight attendants had their bonuses withheld by Qantas from 2018 to 2022. They were eventually paid when a new bargaining agreement was signed in March this year.

Just two months later, Mr Joyce and Qantas announced he would leave in November 2023, with Ms Hudson to take over.

Before Mr Joyce departed he and Qantas did everything they could to maximise profits, from allegedly selling tickets on cancelled flights to holding onto hundreds of millions in flight credits, actions resulting in ACCC investigations and public backlash.

Mr Joyce leaves while still owed a $24 million golden parachute (part of it at the discretion of the board) and having pocketed an estimated $10 million in shares just last Friday.

Meanwhile, in August, Qantas posted record profits for the first time since pre-COVID.

This year hasn’t been a pretty one for Qantas or its CEO, but it has been hugely profitable.

Qantas Alan Joyce

Vanessa Hudson inherits an airline with a massive image problem. Photo: AAP

The successor

When Mr Joyce took over in November 2008, Qantas shares were at $2.97. On Tuesday, when he announced his early resignation, they sat at $5.64, but this doesn’t tell the full story.

By bidding farewell to Mr Joyce two months early to “help the company accelerate its renewal”, Qantas hopes Australians will see the change to Ms Hudson as a fresh start.

This is despite Ms Hudson being a long-term fixture at Qantas. She joined the company in 1994 and was chief financial officer before getting the top job.

Mr Joyce inherited what was considered Australia’s premium carrier, while Ms Hudson takes over a company that has long lost its public opinion lustre.

Whether she can win back its reputation, maintain profits and return Qantas to its former glory remains to be seen.

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