Qantas CEO Geoff Dixon has dropped a figure that makes it clear why splitting the flying kangaroo into airline, fleet, freight and frequent flyer scheme is an attempt to tiptoe around the election year paranoia that threatens to uncover hints of more foreign equity.

Dixon says that after spending $12.6 billion on new fleet since 2000 the group is already committed to another $25 billion for around 130 jets for fleet upgrades and expansion by around 2015.

And that doesn’t include the billions he is thinking of recommending to the board for the all-new Airbus A350 (a very long range 400 passenger jet) in a version available around 2015, or the more fuel efficient single aisle replacement jets that Boeing and Airbus say they may start making in the same year.

As Crikey reported yesterday, this is all political dynamite. Unlocking the value of the parts of Qantas with listed spin-offs is a way around the handicaps in access to debt and equity that come with the 49% foreign shareholding cap in the Qantas Sale Act.

So softy, softly is the current plan. No big bang announcements of a new structure, and soothing words about “…taking into full account the regulations under which Qantas operates.”

Which leaves unanswered the question as to whether the Qantas Sale Act could really limit the share registry of a frequent flyer entity, which might, for instance, run other non-airline loyalty programs, or a fleet company that might rival some of the biggest leasing firms in the world and provide capacity to non-Qantas group carriers.

Big opportunities don’t fit into outdated notions of who can own how much of Qantas. But Dixon doesn’t want to frighten the political horses any time between now and polling day.

Dixon should be getting off a flight to London about now after leaving a luncheon yesterday with the words “I know when to leave the country”, a reference to increased international fuel surcharges.

He arrives in the UK the day his British Airways partner in the oneworld alliance faced Pounds 270 million in fines from the UK Office of Fair trading and the US Department of Justice after admitting collusion over fixing fuel surcharges.

Qantas has already told the market it has made a provision of $350 million against possible fines in these countries.

Hello? Graeme Samuel? Isn’t there an ACCC issue in all of this? Or are the fuel surcharges of ALL of the airlines selling tickets to Australians stuck in yet another too-hard basket.

Peter Fray

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