Under-fire Qantas chairman digs in over future in hostile Senate hearing

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Qantas chairman Richard Goyder is digging in his heels against mounting pressure to resign from the airline and defended the record of former chief Alan Joyce, as he and new boss Vanessa Hudson denied discussing Qatar Airways’ failed bid for more Australian flights with the government.

In a withering parliamentary hearing into the aviation sector, featuring top executives of the three major airlines, Virgin chief executive Jayne Hrdlicka said Prime Minister Anthony Albanese expressed concern about the strip-searching of women at Doha Airport when discussing Qatar’s application.

Qantas chairman Richard Goyder is standing his ground despite calls for his resignation.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Facing three hours of questions from a hostile committee, chaired by Coalition transport spokesperson Bridget McKenzie and Labor’s Qantas hawk Tony Sheldon, Goyder publicly apologised for the illegal sacking of 1700 workers during the pandemic but asserted it was done for “sound commercial reasons” and insisted he had key shareholders’ support to stay on.

“I’ve navigated the company through the global financial crisis, chaired Qantas through the most existential crisis we’ve ever had as an airline. And right now, the major shareholders and the board feel that I’m the best person to chair the board to navigate us through the current situation we’ve got,” he said.

Amid ongoing speculation over whether Qantas plays an outsized role in influencing government decisions, the Coalition launched the Senate inquiry earlier this month into Transport Minister Catherine King’s decision to block Qatar’s bid for more Australian flights.

Joyce departed the airline early this month amid a storm of damning publicity surrounding consumer confidence, an investigation into the airline selling tickets for cancelled flights and the outsourcing of jobs.

Goyder and new Qantas chief Vanessa Hudson faced a hostile committee chaired by Coalition transport spokesperson Bridget McKenzie.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

“I’m not going to walk away from Alan in terms of the contribution that he made,” Goyder said, before acknowledging “we’ve got some work to do to recover trust with our customers and trust on the brand”. He also defended the size of Joyce’s departing $21.4 million pay packet, while Hudson backed Joyce’s salary as competitive.

Goyder said he’d had no discussions with Albanese or any government MP about the Qatar application, and Hudson said she only found out about the July decision in the media.

The pair, who appeared before the committee alongside Qantas general counsel Andrew Finch, drew scorn over wanting to keep the airline’s government submission over the Qatar application secret. Hudson’s refusal to state her public view on Turkish Airlines’ application to fly to Australia prompted McKenzie to lash out.

“I’m not asking for your bank account details I’m asking the most complained about corporate entity to answer the question,” McKenzie said.

Earlier, Hrdlicka said Albanese in July, when discussing with her Qatar’s bid for increased flights to Australia, expressed concern about the 2020 incident, which saw a number of Australian women subjected to invasive strip-searching at Doha Airport.

Virgin Australia chief executive Jayne Hrdlicka told the inquiry the airline remains confused about what happened in relation to the Qatar Airways rejection.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Hrdlicka, whose airline has strong commercial links with Qatar, told the inquiry on Wednesday that she had sought that meeting with the prime minister following earlier discussions with Transport Minister Catherine King.

She said King had told her during a January meeting that bilateral negotiations with Qatar would be undertaken relating to its application, but then in May said the 2020 incident presented challenges relating to the airline’s request.

“My recollection of the conversation is that her view was that it had been raised and was a concern of [Foreign Affairs] Minister [Penny] Wong’s, and this had come up as a challenge, and she didn’t see a way around it,” said Hrdlicka.

“We remain confused about what has actually happened in relation to this matter.”

Wong called Qatari prime minister early this month and raised the invasive searches of the women, but said the aviation agreement wasn’t raised during that phone call.

King has repeatedly defended the decision as routine and in the national interest, and has said the searches of the women were a factor, but wasn’t the only element she considered.

King’s office on Wednesday declined to comment on “the content of private conversations”. Comment was sought from the prime minister’s office.

Qatar Airways senior vice president of global sales, Matt Raos, assured the inquiry that the incident was isolated and “we’re completely committed to ensuring nothing like this ever happens again”.

Raos also told the committee the airline was “surprised and shocked” when its application to double its flights was rejected in July.

He said the airline generated $3 billion in economic benefits for Australia and had continued to fly into Australia during the pandemic.

Qatar Airways Fathi Atti – also a senior vice president – alleged the airline only found out about the decision via the media.

However, a spokesperson for King said the rejection letter was sent to Qatar’s aviation authority four days before the first media report in The Australian Financial Review, which was published on July 18.

“It is up to the government involved – in this case Qatar – to advise the airline of the decision, so we don’t know when Qatar informed the airline,” the spokesperson said.

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