Qantas, rain man and the virtual airline

Qantas sacked 5000 employees, replacing them with 9000 part-time workers. Photo: Sohel Patel/Pexels

Qantas, Australia’s first and for decades only international airline, is looking rather tattered: its standing diminished in an age of diminished international carriers.

There was a time when taking a Qantas flight involved, for the most part, a reliable service. Its minted reputation was enough to earn it a mention in Barry Levinson’s Rain Man, a 1988 production featuring a tormented Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) and his autistic brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman).

Raymond was enamoured with Qantas’s immaculate safety record. Various US airlines could hardly match it. Raymond duly regales Charlie with a number of lethal examples. As Qantas did not fly out of Cincinnati, the car proved to be the only viable means of transport.

Qantas’ current image is one of losses — in revenue, reputation and service.

No longer is it considered the safest airline. This year, the flying kangaroo barely figured in rankings calibrated for an annual safety table by Airlineratings.com, which considered crash, incident performance and operational innovation, and COVID-19 protocols of 385 carriers worldwide. The top honour went to Air New Zealand.

The Qantas of today is not one of smooth reliable travel but indifference, disruption and disappointment. It features queues, chaos and disequilibrium, from passengers and the workplace.

There are staffing problems, frequent cancellations, constant delays and many instances of lost baggage.

The views of long-term Qantas pilot Tom, as reported by the ABC, reveal the conditions that the airline is operating under. “There is no one to talk to and when you go to work you are basically on your own. It’s like we’re running a virtual airline.”

The new law of such a virtual airline is unpredictability.

“Keeping to departure times has always been sacred in the airline industry. In the past we would be kept informed — you will be 10 minutes late, 15 minutes late. Now you must pursue the information yourself and they may, or may not, know the answer.”

According to Tom, who has worked for three decades with the company, he had “never seen anything like it”.

He cites a flight he boarded earlier this year, finding no drinking water onboard and an incomplete load sheet, essential for the pilot to know the weight and balance distribution data.

The Australian Transport Workers’ Union has also roared its disapproval. In a 2020 report, the union noted the nastier side of the carrier’s sharp practice.

QGS, a Qantas creation, is noted as being filled by part-time workers, with QGS contacts guaranteeing work to the value of only hours.

The report also noted the sacking of 5000 employees, only to have them replaced by 9000 part-time workers, employed through subsidiary outlets.

During the pandemic, Qantas received $2 billion in federal assistance — via the taxpayer. Other airlines, notably Virgin Australia, did not qualify for such largesse.

Qantas argued for its unique standing, boasting it did not need a bail-out. However, just on the off chance it did require help, it would have to receive $4.2 billion as a proportional measure to what Virgin might receive, as its revenue at the time was three times that of Virgin’s.

This is a staggering inversion of the survival of the fittest argument.

Last month, Qantas offered $50 worth of vouchers, loyalty status extensions and lounge passes to frequent flyers by way of apology for the mess the airline had put customers in, along with chief executive officer Alan Joyce’s video message to frequent flyer members.

The airline is hardly alone in this general malaise.

Airlines across the globe are spluttering along, providing even worse services than they once did: flights are fewer and, it follows, passengers. Keeping these air hulks in the skies is proving increasingly challenging.

[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]