Can Geoff Dixon’s ‘behemoth’, or the unfair combination of rich foreign airlines plotting to destroy Qantas, be about to make a return?

A report in today’s Wall Street Journal claims that Richard Branson’s private company the Virgin Group, which shares Virgin Atlantic Airways 51:49 with Singapore Airlines, is seeking a 20% stake in Air Asian Express, the long-haul offshoot of Malaysia’s rampaging AirAsia low cost carrier.

Rewind to mid 2001 when Singapore Airlines was trying (on very, very bad advice) to gain 49% of Air New Zealand which owned, and was in the process of looting, 100% of doomed Ansett Airlines.

No one in Qantas then knew how diabolically stuffed Ansett was, or how ruinous success would have been for the Singaporeans, so Dixon as the newly appointed CEO of Qantas mounted a vocal campaign against the ‘behemoth’ that the Virgin, Singaporean and Kiwi carriers would create.

It worked a treat as subsequent events showed.

But now not only is Singapore Airlines 49% behind Tiger Airways and its “Dingo Airlines” domestic offshoot, but might be seen to be acting with Branson to stich up influence with Fly Asian Express, which is determined to start services soon between Australia and the world via Kuala Lumpur just to cruel Jetstar Asia’s pitch for more Malaysia flights.

Time for ‘Behemoth II’? Well, Qantas is encircled by two Asian low-cost carriers, a new Asian owned domestic airline, Branson’s quarter share in Virgin Blue and presumably its soon to launch trans-Pacific offshoot, as well as under attack by Virgin Atlantic to London via Hong Kong and Singapore Airlines to ‘everywhere’ via Changi.

There are a few untidy but not insurmountable elements to any revival of Behemoth-like conspiracy theories.

One is that relations have seemed strained between Singapore Airlines and Branson ever since it paid him far too much money for half of Virgin Atlantic in December 1999. And Branson held firm in September 2001, when the Singaporeans insisted he sell little Virgin Blue to the dying Ansett/Air NZ dinosaur for $200 million.

So if there really is a new behemoth lurching toward poor defenceless Qantas/Jetstar, a lot of Virgin style hugging and making up must have been going on in the background.

A more likely possibility is that Branson simply wants a slice of the Air Asia group’s upside, and what his Singaporean partner in Virgin Atlantic thinks about being in bed with Tiger’s regional rival isn’t going to ruin the infatuation.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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