The grounding of the airline's entire fleet by CEO Alan Joyce brought the issue to a dramatic head. When you ground the nation's airline, the Australian government gets involved and immediately trade union officials also enter the fray, brandishing terms like brand damage, brand equity, brand icon etc-.
What will this mean for Australia's premier airline? And from our point of view, its brand?
Qantas, perhaps more than most national airlines, plays a strong role in the national ethos. Qantas- reputation for reliability, friendliness and of course safety has made their brand alone be valued by some at 1.1billion dollars. It is a brand that has a unique role to play in the Australian psyche, a brand we exclusively call "our own" and one that has no local competition for our loyalties, unlike say Holden and Ford, which are both (of course) of US origin.
This is not the only risk Qantas has faced in recent years. In 2006, almost half the business was sold to an overseas group. While there was concern that jobs and profits were going overseas, there was actually no drop in the quality of service. No passengers were affected. In 2009, an engine exploded, impacting on Qantas' impeccable safety record. While concern was raised, the blame was pointed at an engineers' fault, and Qantas was able to pick up the pieces and continue their service quickly. Nonetheless both incidents began a big withdrawal from the brand equity "trustbank" built from its earliest days as the Queensland And Northern Territory Air Service.
So what's different with this dispute? The difference here is that with tens of thousands of travellers halted, this current crisis impacts directly on Qantas' customers. Claimed in media reports to be more than 70,000 of them worldwide. This is a much more dramatic and significant withdrawal from the brand equity "trustbank". Their stories were told to their relatives and friends, and their frustration was shared across Twitter, Facebook and the media. Getting through this turbulence will be much harder for Qantas to explain, and they will find it more difficult to regain the confidence of consumers some of whom have vowed never to fly Qantas again...
Whichever side you take, this is not going to be easy...Qantas has been fighting the competing challenge of managing and controlling its business and minimising the risk on its brand. They have used a strategy of placing blame at the unions' feet, and the decision to ground the fleet was clearly made by Joyce in an attempt to deflect anger away from the Qantas brand. This has helped mitigated anger to some extent.
They have also apologised in national press and given away free flight tickets. But it will take more than this to restore the faith of their customers and the equity in their brand trustbank.