Qantas boss Vanessa Hudson has received a baptism of fire after being accused of trying to channel her predecessor Alan Joyce to filibuster a senate inquiry.
The new chief executive and chair Richard Goyer fronted a marathon three and a half-hour committee hearing on Wednesday, raising concern that they could miss the last flight back to Sydney.
“The last flight to Sydney is due to leave in half an hour,” Qantas’ legal counsel Andrew Finch raised at 6.30pm.
Inquiry chair, Nationals senator Bridget McKenzie, shrugged and denied the request, unconcerned about the prospect of the executives having to spend the night in Canberra.
“I guess you’re delayed Mr Finch,” she responded, before relenting 15 minutes later and remarking: “We hope it leaves on time.”
Qantas quizzed about connection to Yes campaign
During the hearing, Ms Hudson was lashed by Senator McKenzie, for not coming prepared to answer questions about Yes campaign decals on Wednesday.
“I hope you'll respect, filibustering might have been the strategy of the former chief executive officer,” she said.
“I don't appreciate it from the current one.”
Qantas showed its support for the Indigenous Voice to Parliament by placing a decal on the side of three of its aircraft in August.
Ms Hudson had to take a question on who made the decision for the planes to be adorned with the decals on notice.
Asked who made the decision to back the Yes campaign, the airline said it was made by Mr Joyce and in consultation with the group management committee.
Senator McKenzie repeated the Coalition’s inference the decision to back the Yes campaign was some sort of ‘quid pro quo’ in exchange for the government’s rejection of Qatar Airways.
Mr Finch denied this. Ms Hudson, when asked later, insisted they were “completely different and unrelated positions”.
On the federal government’s decision to knock back Qatar, Ms Hudson said she was not involved in conversations with Labor about the bid.
But Qantas did confirm the company had lobbied for it to be blocked to let the local market recover after the pandemic.
“We were not formally or informally advised … the feedback I got was that there was no informal conversation, and we learned through the media,” Ms Hudson said.
The carrier refused to publicly table its submission to the government but would provide it to the committee if were able to redact commercial-in-confidence information.
She said the decision was ultimately one for government and stressed Qantas did not receive a heads up on the outcome but took the question on notice.
“This would have to be the first time that Qantas in decades has not had a formal discussion with the government about a decision that affects its market share,” Senator McKenzie responded.
When requested he check with the former chief executive, Mr Goyder said he wasn’t sure if Mr Joyce would take his calls at the moment.
Earlier, Qatar Airways and Virgin Australia both told the inquiry it was informed of the decision to reject the carrier’s request to run 28 additional flights through the media.
Qantas chair’s awkward Joyce moment
Chair Richard Goyder, who is facing calls to resign in the wake of the High Court ruling the airline illegally sacked 1700 ground workers during the pandemic, was also under fire for his past comments about Mr Joyce.
Mr Goyder had previously claimed Mr Joyce was the best chief executive in Australia.
He told the committee he wasn’t going to walk away from his support of Mr Joyce, despite understanding Qantas has “some work to do to recover trust”.
“I think Alan Joyce did an excellent job as CEO over 15 years in what is a demanding industry,” he said.
Despite the pressure for Mr Goyder to follow Mr Joyce out the door, the chair said shareholders didn’t want him to resign.
He said the airline had “sound commercial reasons” for sacking the workers, but he apologised and “deeply regret the circumstances”.
Earlier, Ms Hudson echoed her apology to consumers and stakeholders, beginning her appearance at the inquiry with yet another “sorry”.
“There have been times when we have let the wider Australian public down and we understand why people are frustrated and also why some have lost faith in us,” she said.
“As the new CEO. I am determined to fix that.”
But that determination won’t include paying back the funds it received via JobKeeper payments. Ms Hudson said it was “unreasonable” for Qantas to do that despite the airline posting a $2.5bn profit.
Ms Hudson addressed high airfares, claiming news reports quoting prices referred to the most expensive on the plane, and noted the frustration caused by high rates of delays and cancellations.
But she described accusations the airline was slot hoarding at Sydney Airport was “simply wrong”.
It comes as former competition watchdog Rod Sims slammed the current system as “frankly ridiculous”
Qantas and Virgin have been accused of squeezing out smaller rival airlines at the nation’s busiest airport.
Mr Sims said reform was needed to hand the process of slot allocation to an independent body.
“If you can’t get slots at Sydney Airport, you just cannot enter the industry,” he said.
Virgin boss’ bombshell Qatar claim
Virgin Australia has slammed the government’s decision to reject Qatar Airways' request to double its flight capacity, claiming there was “no coherent logic” for the call.
The airline’s chief executive Jayne Hrdlicka appeared before a senate inquiry into the decision, outlining two conversations she had with Transport Minister Catherine King before the final decision was made.
At the first meeting, held in January this year, Ms Hrdlicka said the pair discussed the Qatar application for “five minutes at best”.
But she left feeling “comfortable” enough, despite a mention then Qantas boss Alan Joyce was unhappy with the bid, to not raise the issue when she hosted Prime Minister Anthony Albanese as chair of Tennis Australia.
“I was left with a very clear impression, that the decision to proceed was very compelling and imminent,” she said on Wednesday.
Minister raised Doha airport incident with Virgin in May
But four months later in May, Ms Hrdlicka said Ms King had changed her tune.
“The minister indicated there was some challenge regarding the Doha airport incident of 2020,” the Virgin chief said.
Ms King has repeatedly said she rejected Qatar’s request in the “national interest” but conceded the incident was relevant “context” to her decision.
Earlier this month, Ms King revealed her decision was made on July 10, the same day she wrote to the Australian women who were detained by Qatari authorities at Doha airport in 2020.
During the incident, five Australian women were ordered off a plane at gunpoint and strip searched after officials found a newborn in a bin.
Following Ms Hrdlicka’s conversation with Ms King, she requested a meeting with Mr Albanese, which was not granted until July 13, three days after the Qatar decision had been made.
“He too expressed concern about the 2020 Doha airport incident,” Ms Hrdlicka said, revealing she had been given no indication a decision had been reached.
“I was surprised by this, given my understanding that there had been a diplomatic resolution on the issue between the government of Qatar and the federal government.”
Virgin confirmed it was still awaiting a formal response from the government to a letter it wrote after the decision was made public.
Earlier on Wednesday, Qatar Airways senior vice-president of aeropolitical and corporate affairs Fathi Atti claimed the incident was not raised with the airline during the government’s consideration of the application.
But the airline’s senior vice-president of global sales Matt Raos assured the “very extreme” incident was a “one-off”.
“We see this as a one-off isolated issue, and we’re committed to ensuring it does not happen again,” Mr Raos said.
“Let me provide assurance we have had nothing like that very extreme incident previously in our history, and we’re completely committed to ensuring nothing like this ever happens again.”
Asked by Senator Sheldon if Qatar was voluntarily engaging with mediation proceedings undertaken by the women involved, the airline had to take the question on notice.
Qatar claims it was notified of decision through the media
Qatar Airways was “surprised and shocked” to find out its request to double flights to Australia had been rejected by the government.
Mr Raos said he found out about the decision via media reports and did not receive official word until six days later.
“We were surprised and shocked by the decision of the Australian government to reject our application for additional flights to Australia,” he told a parliamentary inquiry on Wednesday morning.
“Even more surprising was that the government gave us no reason for rejecting our application.”
Mr Atti outlined to the inquiry the carrier had applied for the 28 additional flights on August 22, 2022.
It wasn’t until July 10, 2023, that the airline found out about Ms King’s decision via the media. A formal letter, dated July 14, was not received by Qatar until July 20, Mr Atti said.
It’s understood the letter was sent from the Department of Transport to the Qatar Civil Aviation Authority via email on the same day it was dated.
But Labor senator Tony Sheldon insisted the first mention of the Qatar decision didn’t trickle to the media until July 18.
“We can cross check that,” Mr Atti responded.
Qatar’s swipe at Qantas
Mr Raos said Qatar added 48,000 weekly seats to Australia at the onset of the pandemic, leading it to become the nation’s biggest international carrier in 2020.
He stressed, in a thinly veiled swipe at Qantas, the airline had “never stopped paying refunds to our customers and travel agents during Covid-19”.
The airline, however, isn’t convinced by the government’s claim the rejection of more flights was made in the national interest.
Qatar estimated the additional flights would have generated about $3bn in economic benefits over five years.
Mr Raos said the airline was challenging the “outcome” of the decision. The senior vice president said in the best case scenario, the airline could deliver extra services to Australians around Christmas.
Australian Airports Association chief James Goodwin said the sector was also taken by “surprise” by the government's call.
He told the senate inquiry the sector would like more information about “how and why” the decision was made.
“Australia is a long way away from the rest of the world. And it makes sense to have as many carriers with open skies to be able to get more carriers into and out of Australia,” he said.
“That’s good for Australians wanting to visit family and friends. It’s good for inbound tourism and it’s also good for freight exports as well.”