Recent headlines about Qantas' financial problems bring home what strong opinions people have about Australia's national carrier and what deep collective anxiety the prospect of Qantas failing, like Ansett before it, causes for we island people, whose escape routes depend on a viable aviation industry.
It is probably not so unexpected that Qantas' woes have dominated the headlines given the high-stakes melodrama the story has become, and the fact millions of Australians have their frequent flyer points lodged with this airline. Those who lost points when Ansett failed to get a government bailout in 2001 are particularly nervous.
I'm not going to poke a stick into this hornet's nest of conflicting passions but I do want to consider the concept of loyalty to airlines. What qualities make people stick with an airline and how much does pride in a national carrier take a place in this?
Qantas has cleverly made itself the international face of Australia, not only as the Flying Kangaroo, but in the US as the flying koala in television ads, and the airline whose children's choir brings tears to the eyes. Its safety record has been a source of national pride, especially when Oscar-winning actor Dustin Hoffman lauded it in the 1988 movie Rain Man. For a country that was a bit unsure of itself back in the '80s, Hollywood's endorsement made us feel good.
I declare a strong sentimental attachment to Qantas because, for me, the airlines' flight attendants were the face of Australia whenever I'd fly home from overseas. Wherever on the plane you were seated, they were good-humoured, natural, witty. It was a relief to share a joke with someone who got it. I want to keep flying with them.
Judging by the reaction to the possibility Qantas might fail, however remote this is, I am not alone in this sentiment.
Qantas has its share of critics and many of them are formerly loyal customers. Some passionate critics argue the competing airlines have more up-to-date planes, better in-flight service, lower fares - whatever is the individual's benchmark for choosing an airline. I think it is exactly because Qantas passengers have been so proud of the airline's iconic status that passions are inflamed. For some people, it is like a break-up with a lover who has disappointed you.
Like almost everyone, the vast majority of my flights on Qantas have been as an anonymous paying customer. I do not fly with them as frequently as others do, because it is my job to experience a variety of airlines. But I do not feel like a jilted lover. I have rarely had any issue with the airline. I think it's a fine carrier. I'm still married to it, even if my wedding ring is not platinum but bronze.
For me, a crucial test of an airline is not only the pitch of its seats or how friendly the flight attendants are, but how it manages crises. Airlines can gain or lose loyalty very quickly when things go wrong. There is one airline I have avoided lately because a few years ago when one of its planes broke down and I missed my connection to Sydney, the airline handled the situation in an appallingly bureaucratic and high-handed way. This is an airline that has many loyal customers, but I have not yet forgiven them for making me feel like a third-class citizen when I was tired and vulnerable.
I can hear the sound of a hundred keyboards frantically typing me letters about how Qantas or Etihad etc similarly let them down. Even the best airlines have an occasional failure of customer service. And they all have moments when their customer service has been brilliant. That is why I think trust - getting you there safely, courteously, managing unexpected crises well - is the most important issue with airline loyalty.
Australians spend so much time hurtling about in planes, which airline to fly with is an especially important choice. We have to trust the airline to get us there alive and untraumatised.
Qantas is a bit like that other Aussie icon, Tim Tam biscuits. The brand is so strong, you don't mess with the recipe. However, it doesn't matter at 30,000 feet if the flavour of a biscuit is suddenly different. Everything matters with an airline.
Do you still feel loyalty to the Flying Kangaroo? Post your comments below.