Business | SUNBIZ

Can Vanessa Hudson Restore Faith In Qantas Airline?

In January 1995 Tony Lucas joined Qantas as a junior pilot – crisscrossing the globe as second officer in the cockpit of the famous Boeing 747-400.
10 May 2023 18:35
Can Vanessa Hudson Restore Faith In Qantas Airline?
Incoming Qantas chief executive officer Vanessa Hudson. Photo: ABC

In January 1995 Tony Lucas joined Qantas as a junior pilot – crisscrossing the globe as second officer in the cockpit of the famous Boeing 747-400.

As a graduate of flight school in Adelaide, winning a full-time job at Qantas felt like hitting the jackpot – joining the Qantas family, one of the world’s most admired airlines, was not only a job for life it was a conversation starter, a career maker. He was living the dream.

A few months earlier, Vanessa Hudson joined Qantas, but as an internal audit supervisor.

It was Ms Hudson’s first real job after a Bachelor of Business at the University of Technology Sydney and qualifying as a chartered accountant.

Compared with the glamour and prestige of a pilot’s gig, running numbers in a back office must have felt like the airline industry equivalent of working behind the scenes on a movie set.

Yet 28 years on, Ms Hudson is now Qantas’s leading lady – from that unremarkable start in auditing, she has built a career that has taken her quite literally sky high.

As she prepares to leave her role as chief financial officer for Qantas and take over from CEO Alan Joyce in November, Ms Hudson is not just the first woman to lead Australia’s national carrier, she is now one of only seven women appointed to the helm of the globe’s top 100 passenger airlines.


The to-do List

Ms Hudson and Mr Lucas – who is now a check and training captain on the A330 aircraft and president of the Australian and International Pilots Association representing 2250 Qantas Group pilots – each exemplify the path Qantas must tread over the next months and years, as it moves past the bruising COVID years, and enters a new phase of its history.

The Qantas veterans represent two faces of the airline: 

  • one rooted in the traditions and image that has underscored the brand since it was founded in 1920;
  • the other with an eye on changes the airline needs to make to keep its business nimble in an industry with notoriously slim profit margins of around 2.5 per cent.

Ms Hudson must rebuild not just the size of the workforce following COVID lay-offs, but crucially, staff morale.

Her own key CFO role must be replaced as she strives to ensure the loyalty of other senior staff – notably head of Qantas Loyalty Olivia Wirth, who came close to snatching the CEO role – to prevent the sort of brain drain that can occur during leadership change.

Customer satisfaction, shredded by delays, lost baggage and poor customer care during the pandemic, has been highlighted by both Hudson and Joyce as an urgent area for improvement.

Then there is the business itself. With renewal of the ageing Qantas fleet a priority, Ms Hudson must oversee the funding and delivery of 300 new aircraft along with associated training of pilots, flight and ground crew.


On the upside, stock market strategist Henry Jennings believes while the new jets will be a financial juggling act they will also offer potential to improve the flying experience for customers, open new routes, and drive fuel efficiency.

Negotiating who will fly these new planes, in particular those marked for the ultra-long-haul routes from Australia to the UK and US, is another flashpoint as pilots push back against plans to look outside Qantas for staff.

There are legal battles, too, as baggage handlers pursue their case for compensation against pandemic outsourcing of 1700 staff which was judged illegal.

It is a topic that will be raised again this week as Qantas heads back to the High Court.

Lingering problems with supply of parts, hedging volatile fuel prices – happily now in a low-cost cycle – and other nuts and bolts of the airline business will continue to demand Ms Hudson’s attention.


Winning Back Angry Staff

Mr Lucas’s role as president of AIPA means he will work directly with Ms Hudson, as he has done with Mr Joyce who he describes as “always very charming when you deal with him one-on-one … with an incredible skill to pivot quickly back to his narrative”.

While acknowledging any new CEO provides “an opportunity to take stock” he hopes Ms Hudson’s “long corporate memory” will make her a different kind of leader.

“It’s rare to get executives who have started at the bottom of their respective [area]. I have a lot of respect for Vanessa,” he said.

So what kind of leader will Ms Hudson be? What kind of leader does she need to be?

“The staff who love the Spirit of Australia don’t get to make millions in bonuses and then cash out,” he says – perhaps a dig at Mr Joyce who has earned many millions in salary, shares and bonuses during his 15 years at the airline. Make no mistake, Ms Hudson will be well remunerated, too, with a base salary of AU$1.6 million (FJ$2.40M) announced this week.


Yet Mr Lucas points out many pilots see Qantas as a life-long career and believes “that [understanding] is probably the thing that’s been missing in recent times”.

It is a key reason why pilots felt so betrayed by pandemic lay-offs and outsourcing and current suggestions pilots for the ultra-long-haul routes will be hired from outside the Qantas pilot pool.

Mr Lucas argues Qantas risks losing more than technical capability if it makes the work of a pilot “purely transactional”.

“If this is going to become just a job, no longer a vocation, then I think Qantas will lose something of what it is to be Qantas,” he said.

It’s a theme taken up by Qantas engineers, who fought management last year over shift changes and lack of investment in tools essential to do the job.

“There is hope that a change of CEO will bring new thinking to the business, how to re-engage the employees and the travelling public,” said one engineer who wanted to remain anonymous.





Advertise with us

Get updates from the Fiji Sun, handpicked and delivered to your inbox.

By entering your email address you're giving us permission to send you news and offers. You can opt-out at any time.

Rewa Diwali Promo Banner
For All Fiji Sun Advertising
Fijisun E-edition