Qantas boss in fierce firefight as inquiry turns into inquisition

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Qantas boss Alan Joyce received a round of applause from sharemarket types when he delivered his final profit as chief executive last week, but the divisive CEO received a far frostier reception at a parliamentary hearing on Monday.

The inquiry was about the cost of living, and Joyce had been summoned last week to make his first appearance before the Senate in 14 years.

The grilling Joyce endured was fierce, with questioning significantly more venomous than the standard fare most CEOs often endure.

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce on Monday.Credit: Eamon Gallagher

It turned into a full-blown interrogation of Joyce over issues spanning from aviation regulation to whether Qantas had granted the prime minister’s son a membership of the exclusive Chairman’s Lounge, to the airline’s reputation with the public.

The aggressive questioning revolved around the litany of complaints surrounding Qantas.

Labor senator Tony Sheldon, a former head of the Transport Workers’ Union and long-time critic of Joyce, was particularly forceful. He fired questions at Joyce over issues including the airline’s handling of unused credits for flights that were cancelled during the COVID-19 pandemic; Qantas’ industrial arrangements with staff; and the damage to its corporate reputation from cancellations.

He put it to Joyce the company was the “most discredited” in Australia and wanted to know if this had been raised by the Qantas board.

Joyce dug in, defending the airline and at one point telling Sheldon: “The facts that you’re raising are wrong. And senator, I know you’re getting a bit worked up, but please … give us the privilege of just not interrupting every few minutes.”

Late in proceedings – which were extended for half an hour – committee chair, the Liberal senator Jane Hume, intervened to tell Sheldon he was using a “slightly aggressive tone”.

Most of the topics traversed have been covered by Qantas before, and Joyce unsurprisingly stuck to his previous positions.

He expects airfares will fall significantly after airlines ramp up capacity. He would not comment on reports Qantas had given the prime minister’s son a Chairman’s Lounge membership. And he acknowledged Qantas had opposed a request by Qatar Airways to sharply increase the number of flights it flew to Australia, although he would not reveal what he had said to government ministers about this.

The government recently rejected the Qatar Airways request, and Joyce backed the decision on grounds of protecting the national interest.

Senators appeared particularly keen to explore the Qatar rejection, no doubt partly because of comments from Assistant Treasurer Stephen Jones, who on Monday was quoted as saying the record $2.5 billion profit from Qantas last week was a “good news story”.

Late on Monday, Jones’ office was directing media questions about these comments to Transport Minister Catherine King.

But the remarks attributed to Jones appear to suggest the government blocked Qatar from putting on extra flights at least partly because it wanted to keep the local players “sustainable”.

Jones’ comments certainly didn’t do Joyce any favour at the inquiry, and while he argued it was common for governments to make decisions such as this, it is a tough message for him and the Albanese government to sell.

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