The Qantas chief who brought a new term to Australian vernacular

To be “Joyced” is a new term that has crept into the Australian vernacular to describe being severely inconvenienced at an airport by flight cancellations or luggage going astray.

It is a reference to Alan Joyce, the long-serving chief executive of national carrier Qantas, who has become the conduit for criticism of an array of customer service problems at the “flying kangaroo”.

While airports and airlines around the world made steep staff cuts during the pandemic and have struggled to cope with the return of international travel as a result, some are taking drastic measures in response.

Qantas, for one, took the unusual step this week of asking senior managers to volunteer to fill 100 ground handler jobs for three months while it tries to recruit more people.

It has also said it will lengthen the connection time for passengers changing between domestic and international flights by half an hour to 90 minutes, to act as a buffer for transiting luggage and delayed flights.

Joyce has always had a high profile in a country that still feels a strong sense of ownership toward its national airline.

But his recent troubles started at the baggage carousel. Qantas itself says it is mishandling — or losing — nine of every 1,000 pieces of luggage, roughly twice the normal rate. This is adding to flight delays because passengers are trying to cram more bags into the cabin instead.

These problems, along with unusual levels of flight cancellations because of staff shortages and absences due to illness, mean that passenger frustration is running high, particularly after Joyce commented in April that travellers were “not match fit” and that there were long queues in airports because people were forgetting to prepare their hand luggage properly for security.

Other statements have been much more emollient. Earlier this week he admitted: “While there are lots of good reasons why, the simple fact is our operational performance hasn’t been up to the standard our customers are used to, or that we expect of ourselves.”

The public backlash against the airline’s problems has been harsh but Joyce has a notoriously thick skin. He grew up in a working class suburb of Dublin and has a fighting spirit that has characterised his career.

He is openly gay and has been physically attacked for campaigning for same-sex marriage, while leader of the opposition Peter Dutton told him to “stick to his knitting” and stay out of the debate. He is also a member of Australia’s republican movement.

Trent Zimmerman, a politician who worked alongside Joyce on the equal marriage campaign, said having a business figure as high profile as Joyce fight on the issue was important. “He was a trailblazer in that regard and set the tone for other organisations. His leadership helped deliver a major social change in Australia,” Zimmerman said.

Joyce’s aviation career started at Aer Lingus before then joining Qantas in 2000, where he was picked to run its budget brand Jetstar in 2003. Five years later he beat other internal competitors and was promoted to become only the tenth chief executive of Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services (Qantas) since its founding in 1920.

Andrew Charlton, a former Qantas executive, said Jetstar thrived under Joyce at a time when most in-house budget brands in aviation failed. “He was blooded in the low-cost mentality, and I think we have started to see that in action now,” he said.

Joyce proved a tough negotiator. He temporarily grounded the airline’s A380 fleet in 2010 after a safety incident. “It takes balls to do that because the commercial implications were massive,” said Charlton.

Joyce then did the same again for the entire fleet in 2011 in a dispute with unions. The gamble paid off, Qantas won concessions from unions and by 2016 it had hit record annual profits of A$1bn. Joyce became one of the airline industry’s best paid executives.

But the pandemic, and Australia’s strict lockdown rules, pushed Qantas to the brink as a projected A$23bn in revenue evaporated and it racked up billions in losses. Joyce has said that at one point after the pandemic began in early 2021, the airline was only 11 weeks from financial collapse.

To stave off disaster, it received a A$2bn government bailout and cut 8,000 jobs — including baggage handlers — as part of an overhaul of the airline.

This was crucial in allowing Joyce to steer it out of the crisis and in May he placed a huge order with Airbus to upgrade the fleet and allow Qantas to offer long-haul passengers direct flights from Australia to Europe and the US.

Last month, the business said it expected to have cut net debt to about A$4bn by the end of the year — down a third from its pandemic peak — while delivering underlying profit growth of about A$500mn in the second half.

Joyce’s ruthlessness in cutting jobs during the pandemic has, however, given his union critics a new brickbat now the business is struggling with staff shortages.

Michael Kaine, head of the country’s transport union, called executive bonuses announced last month a “betrayal” of staff, frustrated passengers and taxpayers that had supported the airline.

But it is not a view shared in the Qantas boardroom, where chair Richard Goyder has dismissed the notion that Joyce is under pressure.

“Alan will remain as CEO until at least 2023 and possibly beyond,” he told staff. “He’s done an incredible job through the pandemic and now into the rebuild.”

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