You have to admire the marvellous
flexibility of Qantas – a delicate “national treasure” in need of
protection from filthy foreigners one week, standing on a street corner
with skirt up available for any and all to buy the next. Suddenly all
those cheating foreign airlines that are too grubby to be allowed to
compete on the Sydney-LA route are good enough to marry our little roo.
Anyone whiff a little hypocrisy here somewhere?

Until the past
week’s extraordinary outbreak of matchmaking talk, Qantas had been
getting nowhere with its long-held ambition to have its foreign
ownership constraints lifted. The official line is that it’s about the
cost of capital – although the many cynics among the Qantas staff might
suggest there’s probably some relationship between the share price and
bonuses for those at the top.

Once upon a time Qantas had a
problem bumping up against its foreign ownership limits, but then BA
sold the stake it had had since privatisation and it hasn’t been a
problem since. The reality of the present aviation industry is that
there is no airline with both the money and the inclination to “merge”
with Qantas – unless Emirates really is backed by unlimited oil wealth
– and Qantas has its hands full without trying to take over anyone
else. There is no shortage of airlines in trouble who wouldn’t mind
being bailed out and there will be more as many low-cost carriers hit
terminal turbulence in the great tradition of this industry. But Qantas
doesn’t need their problems either.

Somehow Canberra’s chatter
about maybe allowing Singapore Airlines to take over Qantas has a whiff
of the red herring about it. The issue over the Pacific route has
conveniently disappeared, hasn’t it? Perhaps it would only be those
cynical staff again who might think that opening the Pacific route to
competition will somehow be fobbed off deep into that future when SIA
might be able to “merge” with Qantas.

The future of aviation
should move in the direction of abandoning the traditional concept of
national flag carriers and all their baggage, as most civilised nations
have for national shipping lines.

But that looks like being in
the distant future in our own backyard, requiring a government that is
both deeply rational and happy to burn plenty of political capital –
unless of course Qantas stumbles and joins the majority of the industry
by not making a profit and has to be bailed out.

Peter Fray

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