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Alan Joyce is to step down on Tuesday as Qantas chief executive as the Australian airline attempts to rebuild following a series of scandals that include selling tickets for thousands of flights that had already been cancelled.
Joyce has led Qantas for 15 years and hoped to bow out on a high after the “Flying Kangaroo” reported a record annual profit last month. He had set in place plans to overhaul its fleet, using funds freed up from cost savings that have created a stronger balance sheet.
However, he brought forward his planned retirement by two months after a series of controversies that have damaged the airline’s reputation.
Joyce said in a statement that he would hand over control to his successor Vanessa Hudson on Wednesday and added that recent events had shown “renewal” was a priority for the company. “The best thing I can do under these circumstances is to bring forward my retirement,” he said.
Australia’s consumer regulator sued the airline last week for allegedly selling tickets for 8,000 flights that had already been cancelled and failing to inform, until the last minute, passengers on 10,000 flights that needed to be rearranged.
The airline could face a fine running to hundreds of millions of dollars if found guilty.
Qantas also had to reverse a plan to cancel more than A$500mn ($321mn) of customer credits related to flights that were grounded during Covid-19 after it faced a lawsuit against the move.
The airline has also been caught up in a political scandal after Joyce told a senate inquiry that he had written to the government to argue that allowing rival Qatar Airways to land more planes in Australia would distort the market at a time when the aviation industry was recovering from Covid-19.
That led to accusations from other airlines and travel agencies that the government was protecting the national carrier. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese this week denied that he had been lobbied by the Qantas chief executive over the Qatar issue.
Qantas has come under pressure from shareholder groups and unions to reduce bonuses and share awards for Joyce, who sold A$17mn worth of shares in June. He was awarded almost A$11mn of shares under the company’s bonus plan last week.
That has drawn the ire of investors including superannuation funds. Rachel Waterhouse, chief executive of the Australian Shareholders’ Association that represents retail investors, said the company’s board — led by chair Richard Goyder — was under pressure to reduce bonuses for Joyce and other executives in light of the legal action that had damaged the company’s reputation.
Michael Keane, national secretary of the Transport Workers Union, which has sparred with Joyce during his long tenure, said the chief executive should be stripped of his bonus. “This is a classic Joyce move: pretend to take responsibility while pocketing obscene amounts of money,” he said in a statement.
A Qantas spokesperson would not comment on whether Joyce’s pay would be reviewed. The company will release details about bonuses at the end of this month.
Joyce, who started his career at Aer Lingus before emigrating to Australia at the turn of the century, is one of Australia’s most prominent business executives and has been praised by investors for overhauling the airline’s balance sheet, reducing costs and saving the airline from collapse during the pandemic.
However, he has polarised opinion as the airline’s reputation for excellent customer service has deteriorated. The term “Joyced” entered the Australian lexicon last year to describe being left stranded at an airport.