Saturday, July 13, 2024

‘Great cause for concern’: Union alarmed over possible Virgin Australia boss

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The Transport Workers Union has voiced its concern with Virgin Australia’s owner Bain Capital after reports emerged the airline’s next possible boss was involved in the illegal sacking of 1700 workers at Qantas.

Aviation expert Geoffrey Thomas discusses what went wrong with Bonza.

Budget airline Bonza cancelled all flights across Australia and has entered voluntary administration.

“The aviation industry has never made money since the first passenger stepped on a plane in 1919,” Mr Thomas told Sky News Australia.

“It’s a very savage industry”.

“Virgin, Qantas and Rex are all powerful brands – you’ve got to have something super special to really make an impact”.

On Monday, The Australian revealed Virgin’s chief customer and digital officer Paul Jones is the last internal candidate in consideration for the top job after it was revealed in February outgoing CEO Jayne Hrdlicka would leave the airline.

Mr Jones joined Virgin from rival Qantas where he spent more than ten years climbing the ranks to chief operating officer after being the executive manager of freight and airports when the decision was made to illegally sack about 1700 ground workers in late 2020.

The judge who presided on the case, Justice Michael Lee, found Mr Jones alongside fellow senior manager Colin Hughes had unlawful reasons for the lay offs.

Virgin Australia Chief Customer and Digital Officer Paul Jones is the last man standing in the internal race for the prestigious role of running the nation’s second biggest airline. Picture: Dallas Kilponen

Virgin Australia’s owner Bain Capital is on the lookout for a new chief executive, with Mr Jones a frontrunner for the position. Picture: Jenny Evans/Getty Images

Concerns over the possible appointment of Mr Jones were raised by TWU national secretary Michael Kaine.

He wrote to Bain partner Michael Murphy that reports of the chief executive frontrunner gave the union “great cause for concern,” amid low morale at the carrier, particularly amongst its pilots flying narrow body aircraft.

“As you are aware, the morale of Virgin Australia staff has dropped,” Mr Kaine wrote.

“While working conditions for cabin crew and ground crew have improved following recent enterprise agreement negotiations, pilots remain significantly disgruntled and disappointed with the proposed NB EA (narrow body enterprise agreement) released on Monday.”

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The union boss pointed to a recent survey of TWU pilots at Virgin that showed 95 per cent of respondents don’t feel valued and 42 per cent would consider leaving their job if the current enterprise agreement proposal goes through, which includes the removal of six days off per year.

He also highlighted a survey of TWU Virgin pilots that found the vast majority were dissatisfied with the working environment and many were looking for an exit.

“The TWU pilot survey reflected Virgin’s own staff sentiment survey released last year which found that less than 20 per cent of pilots agreed with the statement: ‘I rarely think about looking for a new job at another company’ and only 3 per cent said they’d ‘recommend Virgin Australia to friends and relatives as a great place to work’,” Mr Kaine wrote.

“Only around 32 per cent agreed that ‘my feedback on safety is taken on board’.”

Mr Kaine criticised Mr Jones’ role in the illegal sacking of about 1700 Qantas in 2020. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Nikki Short

The TWU head continued to criticise Mr Jones’ role and conduct in Qantas’ illegal sacking of about 1700 ground workers, a decision later upheld when appealed by the airline in the High Court of Australia.

Mr Kaine noted Justice Lee’s assertion that the CEO frontrunner was an unreliable witness during proceedings in his 2021 federal court ruling.

“I do not consider it is safe to place any significant reliance upon (Mr Jones’) evidence,” Justice Lee noted.

Based on Mr Jones’ role in the illegal firings, the union boss said the TWU finds “it alarming that such a person … would be considered to run Virgin Australia”.

“That this consideration is given at a time of turbulence between Virgin Australia management and staff is even more concerning,” Mr Kaine wrote.

Mr Kaine was alarmed by reports Bain Capital was looking to appoint Mr Jones CEO after his role in the illegal sackings at Qantas. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Nicholas Eagar.

He capped off the letter with five points for Virgin to respond to regarding both the possible appointment of Mr Jones and recent claims from the current chief executive the carrier is ready for an initial public offering (IPO).

Among the points were queries on criteria for CEO and how Mr Jones meets this, his role in the illegal Qantas sackings, how Virgin will repair its relationship with staff, its plans for an IPO and how the carrier plans to address staff concerns.

The letter comes as Bain has been on the lookout for a new Virgin chief executive since February after Ms Hrdlicka announced her departure from the carrier.

Sky News Business Editor Ross Greenwood says three high-profile departures in the space of 24 hours “surprised markets”.

“Yesterday the Virgin Australia Chief Executive, Jayne Hrdlicka surprised markets with her resignation,” he said.

“Today, also, Qantas Chairman Richard Goyder made good on his promise to resign last year.

“So, what looks like orderly change, and what looks like chaos?

“Brad Banducci, he was going, right – they were going to announce it, if not now, very shortly – you don’t just pluck a chief executive out of thin air.”

Reports in The Australian said the outgoing CEO, who took on the role after Virgin Australia was rescued from administration in 2020, was sacked by Bain with no warning, which left her deeply upset.

The private investment firm was reportedly unhappy with Ms Hrdlicka’s performance for about a year.

Alongside Mr Jones, an unknown international contender is also being considered for the role.

Bain Capital told it has no comment on the letter.

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