Is it time to shoot the Flying Roo?

DEREK RIELLY
Last updated 17:37 13/02/2014

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OPINION: As I write, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce is in Canberra, cap in hand, begging for more gruel from a government ideologically opposed to market intervention.

Saddled with all the inefficiencies of 62 years of government ownership, with a cap on foreign ownership, and trying to ride in the same Gulf Stream as its government-owned competitors, Qantas competes with a windsock on its tail.

The conditions of the heavily unionised cabin crew was the stuff of legend when I was growing up.

Hosties lounging poolside in West Hollywood for three days for every trans-Pacific journey, fabulous all-night parties in Paris and London. And the skippers of Qantas jumbos collecting houses like cards on a Monopoly table.

Back then, becoming an international flight attendant for Qantas or, gasp, a pilot, was just about the finest thing you could wish for. In New York parents proudly spoke of their kids becoming doctors, in Australia it was a gig with Qantas.

Inevitably, trivia nights overseas would come with the question, "What is the safest airline in the world?"

"That'd be Qantas. Accident free since 1951."

Now? The Flying Roo is a regarded as junk by ratings agency Moody's, with all its resultant increase in interest payments and leasing costs. Jobs are being stripped. Maintenance outsourced offshore. Its defence arm about to be sold off for under a hundred million as its finance arm looks under every pillow, every couch and under every desk for a shekel or two to keep the company afloat.

Six years ago, Qantas turned over A$1.5 billon ($1.6 billion) for a A$970 million profit. In 2013, virtually the same turnover gave them A$6m.

Meanwhile, the number of passengers moved has gone from 38 million to 48 million and from 224 planes in the air in 2008 to 312 last year.

Recently, Australia watched Holden disappear - a dying, irrelevant dinosaur euthanised by its American master. Their wares were little more than ancient technology and ideas. Giant six and eight-cylinder behemoths meant for touring vast country distances and rebadged Korean duds. Holden? It won't be missed.

But to lose one icon and possibly another shortly - our sole national carrier the Ryannair-esque Jetstar - why, it's too much to bear! We're losing our identity! Our great symbols!

Qantas is the pride of a nation, despite the fury lacing internet message boards whenever a story on the company appears. You'll be in some godforsaken third world airport, more than a little over the heat and the food, and you'd swing into the lounge and see that familiar red tail fin with the kangaroo, polished within an inch of its life. And you'll climb aboard to be greeted by a male purser (Male! An innovation by Qantas) saying, 'G'day mate. On your left, thanks." Menus created by Neil Perry. Seats and fit-outs by Marc Newson. The finest uniforms in the sky. It was, and still is, Australia's great impression on the world.

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From design to cuisine to service, technology and beyond, Qantas represents a country at the top if its game. When I board a Singapore Airlines jet I automatically regard its mother country as clean, slick, reliable.

Would we even know of the United Arab Emirates if it wasn't for the rapid, government-funded growth of its airline?

I flew Turkish last week and from its paper-wrapped Turkish delights served just after takeoff, to the mint lemonade served from unmarked plastic bottles, I felt like I was in that country.

National airlines like Qantas are unique in that they aren't just businesses run purely for profit, despite what right-wing hardliners might think. They are symbols, ambassadors, early border crossings for international travellers.

Mercifully, no government will want to lose Qantas on their watch.

Derek Rielly is a surfer, writer and entrepreneur. 

- Fairfax Media

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