With flying colours: Qantas CEO Alan Joyce talks about his steady climb to the top of the airline industry
Apart from balance sheet figures, income statements and compliance efforts, every industry has its own indicators of progress and success. And, since 2008, certain of these gauges have given Alan Joyce a great sense of achievement in his role as chief executive of Australian flag carrier Qantas.
In that time, for example, the group has taken delivery of 150 aircraft to support new routes, partnerships and code-share options. There has been significant investment in infrastructure, technology and training in order to upgrade services and sustain the push into new markets, especially in Asia. Scores for overall customer satisfaction have continued to climb. And the airline’s record for safety remains second to none.
On that front, there have been scares, not surprising given the scale of operations and the nature of the business. For instance, in 2010, there was an uncontained engine failure on Qantas Flight 32, which circled back to make an emergency landing in Singapore, amid rumours of a crash over Indonesia. But, while providing a nerve-jangling, real-time test of personnel and systems, Joyce says such incidents can also expose the organisation at its very best.
Acting decisively, Joyce decided to ground the airline’s whole fleet of Airbus A380s – some of which were on runways ready for take-off – regardless of the immediate costs and consequences. It took 12 days to complete exhaustive checks and get all planes back in the air, but this has since become a case study in crisis management.
“We have a culture of safety taking precedence over financial considerations and, when necessary, everything in the organisation is focused on that,” Joyce says. “When something like this happens, you have to tell the truth and get everyone on the same page, even though you are working with limited information and short time frames,” he says. Experts are there to give their opinions, and we pull in any support we need. It is the one thing you dread as an airline CEO, but you can’t be a ‘good-time Charlie’, you have to face the music.”
When incidents occur involving other airlines, such as the mysterious disappearance of MH370, the Qantas team is ready to offer practical assistance. Subsequently, they will look at their own model to understand exactly what has happened and learn lessons in terms of tighter protections, better procedures, and greater all-round awareness.
“We also do a big safety conference every year with speakers from around the world. We want the whole industry to be safe and secure and to get people to exchange experiences about it.”
An Irishman from just outside Dublin, Joyce got into the aviation sector more by accident than design and, in fact, was 23 when he took his first flight. Early career plans were aimed rather generally on doing business of some kind and, to that end, he took a BSc in applied science (physics and mathematics) and, later, an MSc in management science.
He started out as an analyst with Aer Lingus, building mathematical models and doing operations research to improve efficiencies. This meant looking at everything from network schedules and flight planning to revenue management, optimising the number of spare engines, and minimising the time aircraft spent on the ground. And, while the models might have been complicated, the solutions were expected to work. “It gave me a broad knowledge and understanding of the industry, and once you work in aviation, it gets into your blood,” Joyce says.
Eight years on, the offer of a position in Melbourne as head of planning for Ansett seemed too good to resist. A move to Qantas in a similar role followed and, in 2003, the airline appointed him founding chief executive of Jetstar.
The brief was clear enough: establish a new low-cost carrier and get operations off the ground in Australia and across Asia. In practice, it meant near 24/7 involvement, ranging from big-picture strategies about airports and fleet to input on anything from the corporate logo and branding to seat colours, check-in operations, pricing, and recruitment.
Going from initial plan to business case, frantic preparation, testing, and then a successful launch in 2004, proved a notable triumph. There was an almost overwhelming public response on the first day of sales, causing a last-minute scramble to increase server capacity, but everything remained up and running and on track. It also clearly marked Joyce out as a future contender for the top spot in Qantas.
“I was very lucky all the way through,” says Joyce, who in 2015 was named “Airline CEO of the Year” by the CAPA Centre for Aviation, and the world’s second most influential gay business leader in the OUTstanding/Financial Times list of “Top 100 Leading LGBT Executives”.
“When opportunities came along, I grabbed them, and things always seemed to work out. Any new job is like jumping off a cliff, but it is up to you to make it go well. You need a can-do attitude to overcome obstacles, but if you have great people, you should let them do their thing.”
These days, his priorities include introducing more flight paths out of Hong Kong and increasing the focus on mainland China. In tandem, he is also committed to building a more diverse organisation.
To recharge, he jogs, reads a lot, with a preference for biographies and books on maths, and uses flights to catch up on favourite TV series.
Among other things, Joyce is also on the Business Council of Australia and gets involved in “good Irish causes”, he says. , who had a one-year stint as chairman of IATA (the International Air Transport Association) in 2012/13. “What’s great about Australia is that it’s a very accepting society, but I still have strong links to Ireland.”
“Among other things, I’m on the Business Council of Australia and get involved in good Irish causes,” says Joyce. He also a one-year stint as chairman of IATA (the International Air Transport Association) in 2012/13. “What’s great about Australia is that it’s a very accepting society, but I still have strong links to Ireland.”
Alan Joyce’s five tips on giving your leadership a lift.
Start smart “If you want to get ahead, education is the key. It is not a matter of getting a specific degree, but of having a good foundation that gives insight into how to solve problems and manage issues.”
Listen up “It is important to Respect other people’s opinions and be interested in what they do and why. Tapping into different ideas and viewpoints lets you learn and improve.”
Ask away “Understand the power of the question. A lot of leadership is about asking the right question at the right time – and not always thinking you have the right answer, as managers do in a ‘command and control’ organisation.”
Be bold “Take calculated risks and be ready to give it a go. That way you won’t have any regrets later on.”
Maintain balance “Don’t be ‘over the top’ in terms of expecting dedication and commitment. I encourage people to take leave and have time for their families. This makes for more productive executives.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as With flying colours.