When you’re the CEO of Qantas, people are always keen to tell you how they think the airline is doing. Whatever their feedback is, I always see it first and foremost as a reflection of the strong connection Australia has with its national carrier.
To be honest, we know that connection has been tested at times. Six months ago, a lot of people felt we’d let them down and the figures showed why. Almost half our flights were late, our rate of misplaced bags had more than doubled and we were cancelling up to 7 per cent of our schedule.
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said the airline will always put safety before schedule.Credit:Bloomberg
Perception-wise, it didn’t help that this came after some controversial restructuring decisions to make sure we survived COVID. And it didn’t matter that airlines around the world had the same problems as travel restarted. If your flight to the Gold Coast has just been cancelled, it doesn’t make you feel any better to hear the delays are worse in Amsterdam.
Knowing that we were routinely letting customers down was hugely disappointing for everyone at Qantas. Last August, we apologised and promised to fix it. And almost every week after that, things improved.
We’ve now been the most on-time of the major domestic airlines for five months in a row. Our service levels – bags, cancellations, catering and the call centre – are back to what customers expect from us.
As this turnaround was happening, people were talking to me less about flight delays and more about higher fares. The two are related. In order to make our operations more reliable, we had to reduce our flights to give us more buffer. We have more aircraft and crew on standby to step in to deal with the supply chain and sick leave issues that remain. Less supply and lots of demand meant fares went up.
Higher fares also reflect inflation in general and higher fuel prices in particular, which are up 65 per cent in the past six months compared with pre-COVID. Naturally, that flows through to how much you pay for a flight.
There’s not much we can do about the cost of things such as fuel, but the fact our operations have stabilised means we can steadily put capacity back in.
Domestically, we’re almost back to 100 per cent of pre-COVID flying levels. Internationally, we’ll be about 80 per cent by the middle of the year, and we’ve recently seen most of our competitors announce a major ramp up in their capacity – so you can expect to see fares trend down, keeping in mind we’re all paying more for most things at the moment.
More recently, the conversation has been about Qantas mid-air turnbacks, in which a plane returns to its departure city due to safety concerns.
These have received a huge amount of attention because we had several in quick succession, but despite the hype, they are actually a symptom of strong safety systems.
Our pilots always err on the side of caution because that’s what we train them to do. If an onboard system isn’t working the way it should, they will often decide to land rather than pressing on to the destination. I encourage them to keep doing it. And despite the obvious inconvenience, I think most of our customers do, too.
Globally, the industry sees well over 10,000 air returns a year. Looking at our data, there’s no change from our average rate of turn-backs before and after COVID, which for Qantas is about 60 a year, or one in 2000 flights. Our regional arm QantasLink has more, at over 200 a year, because they have more flights and it makes more sense to return to a major city than fly on to a remote town that doesn’t have the same level of technical support.
If you’re flying on an aircraft that has an issue, it’s not because it’s not well looked after. It’s because they are incredibly complex pieces of equipment with many layers of redundancy.
Our approach to engineering hasn’t changed since pre-COVID. There are multiple safeguards for everything that happens in and around an aircraft, which is critical because no one is perfect. And that is ultimately why aviation in this country is so safe.
We will always put safety before schedule. But as the figures and our record shows, Qantas is back to delivering on both.
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