Is the ownership of Qantas about to become an election issue months after the parties saw the politically charged debate over the APA private equity bid go away?

We may know this afternoon when group CEO Geoff Dixon addresses the National Aviation Press Club in Sydney or it could take longer for the penny to drop in Canberra.

Qantas has been soft launching its plans to split Qantas into four companies since late May, with listed entities for the airlines (including Jetstar and part ownership of Singapore-based Jetstar Asia and Vietnam’s Pacific Airlines), their fleets, freight, and the frequent flyer scheme.

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But four Qantas companies could dilute the purpose of the Qantas Sale Act that restricts current foreign domiciled ownership of the Qantas group to 49%.

Qantas has already sent signals that Air Canada’s listed loyalty spin-off Aeroplan could become a stake holder in the frequent flyer program.

It is implausible that it would spin off a fleet entity that couldn’t be priced according to the global valuations of aircraft.

The Qantas Sale Act never anticipated a situation where a majority Australian owned airline group depended on potentially majority foreign-owned spin-off companies for its jets, freight or brand loyalty management.

Sensible investors might well argue this is exactly what Qantas should be doing, and that the foreign equity cap is an absurd limitation on the ability of Qantas to fairly compete.

Why should Qantas be handicapped compared to the financial flexibility of Virgin Blue and its nascent stable of long haul and ultra low cost brands, or the likes of Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Etihad, and all the other aggressive competitors picking off the Australian markets?

But try to argue that more foreign ownership of Qantas is good in an election year. Stand by for a fresh outbreak of knee jerk political babble about keeping kangaroos on the Qantas tails, while the realities of global airline competition get bundled off the stage.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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