Survive? Can it Survive?
Within its Problems Lies an Opportunity
A massive profit
warning delivered much too late saw a third knocked off the
Qantas share price in a single day this week.
Qantas, founded in outback
Australia in 1920, is the world's oldest continuously operating
But will it survive to its
centenary in eight years time? This is a question that five
years ago seemed ridiculous to even ask, but which now seems very
relevant and with an uncertain answer.
The last five or so years have
seen one of the world's truly greatest airlines by any and all
measures become a hollowed out shell of its former self, and even
Qantas management seem barely able to create any credible
enthusiasm for what the future holds.
Is Qantas a victim of world
events, or a victim of internal mismanagement? And - most
important of all - what should it do to turn itself around?
Qantas - Once the World's Best
Longer time readers will know that we have only a very few
airline favorites (in addition to all the ones we dislike).
For the longest time, our most favorite of all airlines has been
Since its privatization in 1993 (and probably prior to that time
Qantas has been consistently an excellently managed airline, with
a passion for excellence not just in its renowned safety record,
but in customer service, and general management, and
By the late 1990s Qantas still enjoyed a massive market share of
international traffic in and out of Australia and virtually owned
the market between the US and Australia. It had one of the
youngest fleets of planes in the world, all of which were
impeccably maintained without cost constraints, and was Australia's most
respected brand. In past years we've delighted in
reporting on its huge profits - it has regularly been one of the
world's most profitable airlines - and its ongoing success.
James Strong - Qantas' first CEO since its 1993 privatization, was a good leader, and was replaced by
another excellent manager, Geoff Dixon in 2001. The two of
them successfully guided Qantas' transition from a complacent
cost-encumbered government organization to a lean mean competitive
and very successful airline.
But in late 2008, Dixon in turn was replaced by Alan Joyce, and -
coincidentally or not - at about the same time, things started to
go wrong. Qantas has been steadily losing market share, both
domestically within Australia and internationally on routes to
other countries, and it seems all it can do to respond is to offer
increasingly weak excuses for why its dwindling market share isn't
its fault, and to float increasingly far-fetched turnaround plans.
Its fleet of planes is getting older and more worn out, with
associated penalties in operational economics (such as fuel
Qantas has now contracted out its engine maintenance, one of its
notable points of former excellence, and - again by apparent
coincidence - the old Rolls Royce engines on its 747 fleet are
becoming alarmingly unreliable and problematic.
As for the new Rolls Royce engines on the few A380s Qantas has
accepted (before deferring future deliveries), they have also had
some headline causing problems that nearly resulted in tragedy and
the complete loss of an A380 in November 2010.
Qantas Routes in Decline
Qantas has turned its back on its once most important market -
what was known as the 'Kangaroo route' from Australia to Britain;
so much so that many of its flights now only go halfway to Europe,
with passengers then having to transfer to a British Airways
flight for the remainder of their journey. We have yet to be
convinced of the rationale of an airline not flying its own planes
on a profitable route, and passengers for sure dislike the change
of plane and airline halfway through a flight.
If someone were to fly on a major Qantas competitor such as Singapore
Airlines or Emirates, they could go from many Australian cities to
many European cities with only one change of plane, and staying on
the same airline all the way. But with Qantas you'll likely
have to change airlines plus change planes twice,
including backtracking from London back east to wherever in Europe
you actually want to travel to, on a much more time consuming
As for North America, Qantas recently ended its decades of service
between the US and New Zealand, and also surprised most
commentators by withdrawing from San Francisco (for a second
time) in favor of a problematic route from Dallas (problematic in
the sense that the distance is right at the limit the 747s can
fly, so on occasion, passenger bags have to be left behind due to
Market Share Loss
Historically, back in 1976 Qantas had a massive 46% market share
of international traffic in and out of Australia. By 1996
this had moderated slightly, down to 39%. Market share
continued to drop, and by 2000 it was down to 35%. Nowadays,
it is at about 19%, although this 19% share is joined by the
market share now claimed by its low-cost subsidiary, Jetstar
(about another 20%).
It could be argued that by adding together the market shares of
Qantas and Jetstar that the Qantas group as a whole has maintained
its hefty market share, but that's not the point of setting up a
second brand - to cannibalize and take share from the parent
The purpose of a second brand is to get more market share from
other market segments which the parent brand can't reach without
compromising its core image, allowing the now twin branded company
to keep its existing market share under its primary brand and to
seek additional market share from a secondary brand. By this
measure, Jetstar has achieved credible success as a second brand,
but the prime brand - Qantas - has suffered massively.
Qantas has struggled with low cost carrier issues, and has entered
into some ill-advised and short lived partnerships with other Asian carriers,
while also making extravagant and hard to believe claims about future partnerships.
Unsurprisingly, none of which claims have yet to get anywhere
close to reality, and we again feel that in seeking new
partnerships and new ventures, Qantas management is closing its
eyes to its core brand and the fundamental problems it has created
Qantas' Dreadful Week of Despair
In the last week or so Qantas has panicked by both the
announcement of a 4% shareholding by Etihad in its major
Australian competitor, Virgin Australia, and Etihad's intention to
grow it to 10%. Apparently this trivial share of Virgin
Australia that would now be owned by Etihad is thought by Qantas
to give its competitor magical powers that Qantas itself will be
unable to respond to. If this is even remotely true, it
reflects very poorly on the diminished management capability of
Qantas has also announced its plans to split itself into two airlines
(one domestic, one international) which reverses its earlier union
of its historically separate domestic and international
operations. All this seems likely to do is double up on
management structures and overhead, for no clear good purpose
(other than perhaps helping Qantas sell more of itself to
And, worst of all, Qantas has given a very last minute profit
warning that due to the sudden surprise and substantial nature of
it (a 90% drop in projected profit compared to the previous year,
announced a mere three weeks before the end of its fiscal year), saw its shares
lose a third of their value in a single day.
None of the reasons for this profit cut were new or sudden.
They had been steadily evolving and unfolding all year long, but
Qantas management waited until almost the end of its fiscal year
to update its profit guidance. This appalling level of
communication seems to be getting dangerously close to violating
the rules of the Australian Stock Exchange, and investors
responded by dumping Qantas shares, which lost a third of their
already depressed value in a single day.
Relations between its unions and management - never very smooth -
are these days about as bad as they can get, and it seems that its
relations with its customers are no longer much to write home
Qantas' lack of respect for both its customers and its staff was most
vividly shown in October last year when it suddenly announced a
world-wide halt to all its flights, which it claimed was a sudden
decision forced on it by the unions, but which in reality seems
likely to have been plotted in advance, and was designed to
pressure the Australian government to intercede in its union
The sudden stranding of passengers all around the world ended up
costing Qantas $100 million in above the line costs; beyond that,
one can only guess as to the longer term impact on its reputation
and its loss of market share from people who have decided they'll
never again trust Qantas with their travel plans.
As for its marvelous safety record, Qantas continues to 'roll the dice'
way too many times, with the most spectacular recent event being
one of its Jetstar subsidiary pilots being distracted by using his
cell phone and mismanaging a landing approach (with his co-pilot
passively doing nothing to correct the matter) such that for two
minutes neither pilot did any of the things they should have been
doing to get the plane ready for landing - see this
damning report here.
A Future for Qantas?
So what for Qantas' future?
Frankly, the airline's future looks terrible at present.
Qantas suffers a major route weakness in its chosen partnership
with fellow Oneworld airline BA, forcing passengers to overfly all
European cities and travel on another hour or two more west on to
London before then changing planes and flying back east, another
couple of hours or more, to the European city they actually want
Qantas is probably prevented from operating its own flights from a
midway point such as Singapore or Bangkok and on to major European
destinations (or even from a collector/feeder point in eastern
Europe) due to the restrictions on international airline route
treaties. If this were possible, it would be Qantas' best
However, looking at what is possible, Qantas would be better
advised to work with, for example, fellow Oneworld airline Cathay
Pacific (Hong Kong is reasonably directly en route from Australia
to Europe) but even that would only give it about a third/half as
many destinations in Europe accessible via two flights as are
offered by Emirates or Singapore Airlines and a number comparable
to that offered by Etihad, and still involves Qantas passengers both
changing plane and airline halfway through their flight.
An interesting precursor to the announcement of Etihad buying into
Virgin Australia was speculation that Emirates might be interested
in buying into Qantas. Certainly there's palpable rivalry
between the two UAE airlines, and an Etihad participation in the
other main Australian airline may indeed spur Emirates to respond
by taking up a slice of Qantas.
But, just as the Etihad small ownership in Virgin Australia has
little impact on Virgin Australia, an Emirates 5% - 10% ownership
in Qantas would have little impact on that airline. What
would be more meaningful would be if Qantas were to supplement or
replace its current close relationship with BA and instead start
feeding passengers through Dubai and on to Emirates flights, and
that's a decision that doesn't need any shareholding, just a
willingness on the part of Qantas management to turn their back on
a frankly not-very-useful relationship with BA and replace it with
a much more useful one with Emirates.
Most of all, Qantas needs to stop whining about how the world is
unfair. Qantas was formerly one of the world's most successful
and most profitable airlines. The world hasn't changed.
The only thing that has changed is Qantas' management.
If Qantas is to turn itself around and return to its former glory,
it clearly needs to have another management change to make this
happen. We hope this will happen urgently quickly while
there is still some airline left to save.
Assuming that air treaties do
indeed prevent Qantas from operating flights from another country
and on to Europe, it should operate long haul flights from
Australia to as close to Europe as possible, and then set up a
subsidiary airline as a joint venture so as to qualify for the
necessary traffic rights in and within Europe to carry passengers the remaining shorter
This would give Qantas most of
the travel (and most of the profit) on its own long-haul planes,
and would allow for a fleet of smaller narrow-bodied A320/737 type
planes to service multiple European destinations from this new
One obvious location for such
a hub might be Kiev in Ukraine - 9300 miles from Sydney, and
closer for Brisbane and Melbourne. This is at the far range
limits of the new A380 and 777-200LR planes, but should be
feasible, so Qantas could have high capacity flights from Sydney,
Melbourne and Brisbane feeding in to Kiev, then fanning out on
smaller planes to most European cities. Other possible hub
cities would be Moscow (9000 miles) or possibly Minsk (9400 miles)
depending on the practical reality of the range achievable.
Any/all of these three cities
are more or less on the direct shortest route between much of
Australia and much of Europe, so they are efficient effective
choices of hubs.
From Kiev, Moscow or Minsk,
nearly everywhere in Europe is no more than three hours flying.
The only exceptions are Portugal and Madrid.
Flying these under 1500 mile
routes is a trivial distance
that can be handled by almost any type of plane the new Qantas
partnership airline might sensibly choose to operate.
Qantas would have turned its
strategic route weakness into a strength and would be able to offer
better service between more points in Europe at one end of the
route system, and Australia/New Zealand at the other end of the
route system, than could any of its competitors.
The current 'strength' of its
major competitor routes - having the half way stopping point in
the competitor's home country and network hub - becomes a
weakness, because the Qantas competitors can't then operate
smaller planes to more destinations in Europe. They are
necessarily restricted to larger widebody planes and so can only
go to major destinations where there is sufficient traffic to
While competing airlines are
operating 300 - 500 passenger planes to major cities, Qantas could
be operating smaller planes with 100 - 200 passengers, and in its
new joint venture airline, would not only be feeding people in/out
of its long flights to Australia, but could pick up business
around Europe to its regional hub city too.
Yes, this is a bold plan, but
if Qantas doesn't make some bold plans, it faces an uncertain and
increasingly diminished future.
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07 Jun 2012, last update
21 Jul 2020
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