Grounded: one year on, are you back on board with Qantas?

Qantas chief executive cited a truly amazing statistic last week: nearly half of the people  questioned in a survey wanted to fly Qantas on their next overseas trip.

After the signing of the joint venture with Emirates early in September, the airline commissioned Sydney’s Acuity Research to poll around 500 people planning overseas travel in the next two to three years.

According to media reports, those surveyed were a mix of ages from around Australia and included Qantas Frequent Flyer members, Qantas customers who weren't frequent flyer members and people who didn't regard themselves as Qantas customers.

The poll found 43 per cent nominated Qantas as the carrier they wanted to fly overseas with, followed by Emirates (22 per cent) and Singapore Airlines (20 per cent).

And 43 per cent of all surveyed said the proposed joint venture with Emirates would make them more interested in flying Qantas and Emirates on their next trip.

It’s an amazing finding because the last time Qantas flew more than 40 per cent of overseas travellers was in the 1980s or early 1990s, when Australian governments began liberalising the restrictive international air services treaties to let more international Qantas competitors into Australia.

Qantas’s market share has been on the slide ever since and it wasn’t helped by the drastic decision a year ago today to ground the Qantas fleet globally to overcome a crippling industrial dispute with unions, which had begun a long-running  “slow bake” of the airline over pay and job security.

In fact, on the most recently analysed figures, Qantas has just 18 per cent market share into and out of Australia (with another 8.2 per cent flying Qantas subsidiary Jetstar) as the country is invaded by new competitors with much lower cost bases, enabling them to undercut Qantas on long-haul routes at the pointy end in business class (Emirates, Etihad) and in cattle class (China Southern, AirAsia X).

Though it hardly gets any media attention, Qantas has been working on its product, retraining cabin staff at its new Sydney customer service centre and constantly professionally measuring its customer ratings, which it says have never been higher.

At the same time, it is using technology to both improve the customer experience and cut costs through automation with the progressive introduction of faster check-in tools and in-flight stuff like iPads and wifi.

Qantas is never going to be the cheapest in town when the Australian dollar is one of the world’s dearest currencies, so it has no choice but to improve the product or go out of business.

The urgent priority for Qantas International is to increase patronage in long-haul business class with the overseas flying business racking up a disastrous $450 million loss in the most recent year, exacerbated by the moribund economies of Europe and America, which have stopped many business travellers from using air travel.

It is also having to fend off a domestic price war, which is seeing business class heavily discounted for the first time as Virgin Australia premieres its new business class offering.

“What you have seen in media headlines may have left you with the impression that our response to the challenges before Qantas is to retreat, or just cut back,” Joyce told the American Chamber of Commerce in a speech in August. “That’s not the case. We are undertaking a wholesale transformation of Qantas to make it better and stronger, the premium Australian airline for our times.

“Our domestic and international Qantas customers want a great product, both in the airport and on board the aircraft. They want modern, intuitive service – world class service which is distinctly Australian. We aim to deliver just that all the time.

“Which is why we have embarked on a wholesale, multi-year program of investment, training and innovation.”

Joyce says Qantas’s average fleet age is now the youngest it has been since privatisation in 1993 – “younger than the fleets of Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa and the three major American airlines”.

“By the end of 2012, 11,000 Qantas domestic and international frontline staff will have completed our new customer service training program.

“We are shaking up the service culture, loosening the ties, giving our people greater opportunity to freestyle and respond to our customers and their needs.

“We have put in place a ‘closed loop’ feedback system that allows us to evaluate our service based on advice from a panel of almost 13,000 Frequent Flyers.

“We have asked some of our best people to become in-flight coaches, and observe and mentor cabin crew in flight. Customer feedback on those flights is fantastic, and our people are loving the opportunity to showcase their skills.”

But if 43 per cent of people want to use Qantas and in bald terms only 18 per cent actually do, the service is going to have to be stellar to get the maximum number of people to fork out the premium it has to charge.

Are you one of those who has stuck with Qantas since the grounding of a year ago? Have you noticed the change in the Qantas service culture in the past year? At the airport and in the air, who do you rate the best airline of the past year domestically and internationally?

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