“Give me back my slogan,” veteran broadcaster Phillip Adams says, after a somewhat sweary rant about Qantas.
The man who is now known as the voice of ABC radio’s Late Night Live was once an advertising guy, with a client that was one of the world’s oldest airlines.
“I got the account,” he says, “by proffering the ‘Spirit of Australia’ as a blood sacrifice.
“I suggested that would be the perfect slogan, and at the time it was apposite. I had fond memories, going back to the evacuation of Darwin.”
The 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 emotive appeal of its advertising over many years.
But within a few short months travellers have savagely turned on the airline as Qantas struggles with the legacy of the pandemic and the results of its corporate decision-making.
When Australia closed its borders to most travellers during Covid – including its own citizens in some cases – Qantas got rid of thousands of staff, including baggage handlers, and outsourced the work.
Now the news and social media are filled with horror stories from irate passengers whose bags have gone missing, who are stuck in eternal security queues, or who have been stranded when flights have been cancelled.
In June, Qantas had the highest flight cancellation rate of any Australian airline and – along with its budget sibling Jetstar – the lowest rate of on-time arrivals and departures.
In Adelaide this week, security scanners were on the blink, and bags were wantonly swapped between lines. In Canberra, people were hustled to gates, then turned around and sent away.
For some it has been inconvenient and frustrating, but for others the problems at Qantas have had serious financial and career consequences.
The Melbourne metal band Thornhill set off on a 30-stop tour of the US earlier this month.
The band landed after a long flight from Perth via Sydney.
Their luggage didn’t.
Guitarist Matt van Duppen says at first it was just confusing, but confusion gave way to anger when Qantas didn’t help, until they went public on Twitter and television. They had to cancel shows, cop the financial hit, and leave their fans in the lurch as they tried to track down their kit.
“They lost all the gear,” Van Duppen says. “Our amps, our guitars, drum stuff, all our electronics, the stuff to power 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.”
Van Duppen is in San Francisco when Guardian Australia talks to him. He’s sunny, but not sanguine.
The band lost income in show fees and merchandise sales, after already paying double the price for the latest trip compared to the last.
“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 in the current conditions, which include factors well beyond its control, such as the sky-high cost of jet fuel caused in part by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But senior management, and above all the high-profile chief executive, Alan Joyce, have come in for savage criticism.
The head of the construction union, Dave Noonan, coined the term “Joyced”, for when things go wrong at Qantas, but he is far from alone in highlighting management’s responsibility.
Qantas picked up $2bn in taxpayer funds during Covid, and delivered first class bonuses to executives, while pilots and engineers are fighting for higher pay.
But regardless of exactly what has gone so wrong to trash the reputation of a national icon in such a short space of time, it faces an uphill battle to regain the trust of the Australian public. Can the Qantas brand be fixed?
‘There’s a lot of attachment’
Qantas has never been shy about trading on its history as an aviation pioneer in the outback, and its periodic contributions amid national crises.
Born in 1920, it initially ferried mail as well as people, and for a while operated as a flying doctor service.
By the second world war, it was moving supplies and troops, and evacuating people from danger zones.
In 1974, a Qantas Boeing 747 evacuated 674 people from Darwin in the wake of Cyclone Tracy, and in 2002 Qantas planes brought the wounded home after the Bali bombings.
The airline’s reputation for safety was cemented by the 1998 film Rain Man (famously never shown on Qantas flights), in which Dustin Hoffman’s character Raymond notes that “Qantas never crashed”.
The national airline inspired deep, patriotic, loyal devotion, which helps to explain the sense of hurt, even betrayal, in reaction to its recent troubles.
Because it’s Qantas. The Spirit of Australia. Qantas is choirs singing in the outback. It’s the Flying Kangaroo. It’s Kylie and Hugh and calling Australia home.
In the middle of 2021, when people were deeply exhausted by the pandemic but optimistic that some sort of end was in sight, Qantas put out a true-to-brand tearjerker advertisement.
There’ll be reunions and holidays and maskless hugs and overseas weddings, it promised, if everyone got vaccinated.
“I had a dream that I’d just fly away,” Tones and I crooned. “Someday we’ll all be together once more”, Qantas promised.
“There’s so much emotion,” Chris Baumann, an associate professor at Macquarie University, says.
“People remember Qantas from their childhood. There’s a lot of attachment.”
Baumann, an economist and course director of the university’s bachelor of marketing and media course, says there is a century of “brand equity” in Qantas.
That buildup of fondness and high expectations means that, when Qantas fails, it hits hard. Baumann says when people are flying Jetstar, they’re just happy to get a free coffee. But the bar is much higher with the national carrier. When it fails, they don’t just feel disappointed; they feel betrayed.
“With these issues with the luggage, with flights being cancelled … passengers will be forgiving if it’s the weather,” he says.
“But if they think it’s at least in part due to mismanagement, they blame the brand that they know.”
That historical equity, he says, also means it will all even out.
“People are upset in the moment,” but have short-term memories, he says. “In six months they’ll book again.”
Consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier – who has worked for Jetstar – agrees that the current woes are a “blip”.
“The amazing thing about strong brands is how little the short term matters,” he says.
Social media allows individual complaints to be elevated, then amplified by traditional media, he says, but that’s not reflective of the broader sentiment.
“There are years of emotional investment [in Qantas],” he says. “The current public relations issues Qantas is having are built off 100-plus years of being a really strong brand … this is a blip in the consumer psyche.”
Qantas apologised to travellers this week. In an interview on the Sydney radio station 2GB, senior manager Andrew David acknowledged the airline had let customers down.
“We are the national carrier – people have high expectations of us, we have high expectations of ourselves – and clearly over the last few months we have not been delivering what we did pre-Covid,” he said.
In a separate statement earlier this month, he said some criticism was fair, but some of the problems were global.
Restarting the airline after it was grounded by the pandemic was complex, he said. A tight labour market and rising Covid cases were the headwinds, not the baggage handler outsourcing. Qantas was now recruiting staff and cutting flights.
“Given Covid and flu will be ongoing, there will be a few more bumps along the way,” he said.
“But over the weeks and months ahead, flying will get back to being as smooth as it used to be.”
Phillip Adams wants his slogan back. Customers want their bags back.
Qantas wants its reputation back, and only time will tell where it will land.