“Give me my slogan back,” says veteran broadcaster Philip Adams, after somewhat swearing about Qantas.
The man now known as the voice of ABC Radio’s Late Night Live was once an advertising man who had a clientele on one of the world’s oldest airlines.
“I got the account,” he says, “by offering the ‘Spirit of Australia’ as a blood sacrifice.
“I suggested it would be the right slogan, and it was appropriate at the time. I had great memories of going back to extract Darwin.
Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services – the world’s third oldest airline – has long held a special place in the hearts of Australians, thanks to its reputation for safety and efficiency and the emotional appeal of its advertising over the years.
But within a few months, passengers have ruthlessly turned the airline back on as Qantas struggles with the legacy of the pandemic and the consequences of its corporate decision-making.
When Australia closed its borders to most travelers during COVID-19 – in some cases including its own citizens – Qantas laid off thousands of employees, including baggage handlers, and outsourced the work.
Now the news and social media are full of horror stories of jittery travelers whose bags have gone missing, who are stuck in endless security queues, or who are stranded when flights are cancelled.
In June, Qantas had the highest flight cancellation rate of any Australian airline and – along with its budget brother Jetstar – the lowest rates of on-time arrivals and departures.
In Adelaide this week, security scanners were in the blink of an eye, and bags were inexplicably swapping between lines. In Canberra, people were driven to gates, then turned and sent off.
For some it has been uncomfortable and frustrating, but for others Qantas’ problems have had serious financial and career consequences.
Melbourne metal band Thornhill embarked on a 30-stop tour of the US earlier this month.
The band landed after a long flight from Perth to Sydney.
He didn’t have his belongings.
Guitarist Matt van Duppen says it was just confusing at first, but when Qantas didn’t help, the confusion sparked anger, until they became public on Twitter and on television. He had to cancel shows, suffered a financial hit, and left his fans in the lurch as he tried to track down his kit.
“He lost all gear,” Van Duppen says. “The stuff to power our amps, our guitars, the drums stuff, all our electronics, our ear monitors.
“No one on the phone could tell us where the bags were. We couldn’t play the first two shows and we were very close to not playing the third one.”
Van Dupen is in San Francisco when Guardian Australia talks to him. It is sunny, but not bayonet.
Having already paid twice the price for the latest tour than the previous tour, the band lost the proceeds in show fees and merchandise sales.
“Qantas dropped the ball,” he says. “It’s a kick in the guts.”
Qantas is far from the only player in the airline industry struggling under current circumstances that include factors beyond its control, such as the sky-high cost of jet fuel due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But senior management and above all the high-profile chief executive, Alan Joyce, have come in for brutal criticism.
The head of the construction union, Dave Noonan, coined the term “joyed” when things go wrong at Qantas, but he is far from alone in uncovering management responsibility.
Qantas raised $2bn in taxpayer funds during COVID, and awarded first class bonuses to officers, while pilots and engineers are fighting for higher pay.
But regardless of what has gone wrong to tarnish the reputation of a national icon in such a short time, she faces an uphill battle to win the trust of the Australian public. Can the Qantas brand be fixed?
‘So much love’
Qantas has never been shy about doing business on its history as an aviation pioneer in the outback and its periodic contributions amid national crises.
Born in 1920, it initially carried mail as well as people, and operated as a flying doctor service for some time.
By World War II, it was moving supplies and troops, and evacuating people from danger areas.
In 1974, a Qantas Boeing 747 evacuated 674 people from Darwin in the wake of Cyclone Tracy, and after the 2002 Bali bombings, Qantas planes brought the wounded home.
The airline’s reputation for safety was reinforced by the 1998 film Rain Man (famously never shown on Qantas flights), in which Dustin Hoffman’s character Raymond noted that “Qantas never crashed”.
The national airline inspired a deep, patriotic, unflinching devotion, which helps explain the feeling of hurt, even betrayal, in reaction to its recent troubles.
Because this is Qantas. Spirit of Australia. Qantas is a vocalist in the Outback. This is a flying kangaroo. It’s Kylie and Hugh and calling Australia home.
In mid-2021, when people were too tired of the pandemic but optimistic that some kind of end was in sight, Qantas pulled out a true-to-brand teardrop ad.
If everyone gets vaccinated, there will be reunions and holidays and there will be maskless hugs and foreign weddings.
“I had a dream that I would just fly away,” Tone and I shouted. “Someday we’ll all be together again”, Qantas promised.
“There’s a lot of emotion,” says Chris Baumann, an associate professor at Macquarie University.
“People remember Qantas from childhood. There’s a lot of affection.”
Bauman, economist and director of the university’s Bachelor of Marketing and Media courses, says Qantas has a century of “brand equity.”
That build of affection and high expectations means that, when Qantas fails, it hits hard. Baumann says that when people are flying Jetstars, they are happy to get free coffee. But the bar is much higher with the national carrier. When it fails, they do not despair; They feel cheated.
“With these issues with baggage, with flights being cancelled… passengers will be forgiven if it’s the season,” he says.
“But if they think it’s at least because of mismanagement, they blame the brand they know.”
He says that historical equality also means that it will all be equal.
“People are upset in the moment,” but there are short-term memories, he says. “In six months they will book again.”
Consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier – who has worked for Jetstar – agrees that the current crisis is a “blip”.
“The amazing thing about strong brands is how little the short term matters,” he says.
Social media allows individual grievances to be heightened then amplified by traditional media, but it does not reflect the broader sentiment.
“There Are Years of Emotional Investing” [in Qantas],” he adds. “The current public relations issues Qantas has built upon over 100 years of being a really strong brand… it’s a blip in the consumer psyche.”
Qantas apologized to passengers this week. In an interview on Sydney radio station 2GB, senior manager Andrew David acknowledged that the airline has let customers down.
“We are the national carrier – people have high expectations of us, we have high expectations of ourselves – and clearly in the last few months we are not delivering what we did pre-Covid,” he said.
In a separate statement earlier this month, he said some of the criticism was justified, but that some of the problems were global.
He said restarting the airline was complicated due to the pandemic. A tight labor market and rising Covid cases were the headwinds, not the baggage handler outsourcing. Qantas was now hiring staff and cutting flights.
“Given the Covid and flu, there will be some more bumps along the way,” he said.
“But in the coming weeks and months, flying will become as smooth as it used to be.”
Philip Adams wants his slogan back. Customers want their bags back.
Qantas wants his reputation back, and only time will tell where he will land.