Looking back at Ansett amid Virgin Australia’s Struggle. By Owen Zupp
Stood Down. Thanks to Covid-19.
Looking Back at Ansett.
Unbelievably, nearly twenty years have passed since Ansett Australia closed both its doors and a significant chapter in Australian aviation history. Yet it seems much closer as those headlines now fill with the announcement of Virgin Australia entering voluntary administration. And beneath the headlines and industry fallout, the collapse of any airline has a very real personal toll. The individual experiences that followed the Ansett collapse ranged from suicide to success, but universally there was some degree of scar tissue.
The demise of Ansett Australia was, unfortunately, a little like watching a train wreck in slow motion. It was approaching ever closer and everyone was just hoping that the signal would switch from red to green – but it didn’t. Much has been written about the Air New Zealand factor, ageing fleets and News Limited’s apparent disinterest in the airline industry. You know, the old “great airline, lousy business” quote.
From the inside, the issues seemed quite apparent to many of the staff and yet the train continued to rattle along. Unfortunately, for staff, much of the ‘inside information’ was to be gleaned from the Financial Review, rather than official company communiqués and the news was rarely good. In the final weeks, you would walk through the terminal with the newsagent billboards constantly reminding you of the airline’s dilemma and imminent collapse. It took a degree of discipline and a healthy sense of humour to maintain the focus on flying the aeroplane and preserve safety as the top priority amidst the media barrage. Yet for me, the most telling report did come from the company in the form of a memo advising crews that meals would no longer be provided onboard the aeroplane. We were reminded to not only maintain an adequate level of sustenance while on duty but to avoid delaying flights if we stopped for take-away food in the terminal. Actually, when I think about it, a sense of humour was mandatory.
The phone rang in the middle of the night on September 11th and I switched on the television to witness the surreal events unfolding in New York. The sight of Boeing airliners plunging into skyscrapers like daggers and the collapsing goliaths of the Twin Towers are images that will remain with us all forever. My wife and I had been at the top of those towers only weeks before and my thoughts flashed immediately to the character-filled lady that had sold me a donut; what was her fate? Closer to home I knew that this meant the end for Ansett.
Three days later I was scheduled for an early morning start to crew the first service of the day, Flight One to Melbourne. The news the previous evening had not been good as the TV-related the airline’s impending death. In the wee hours, I called the crewing officers to verify the company’s ongoing existence and was advised the operations were normal. However, when I stood outside the Ansett terminal at Sydney, unable to open the automatic doors, I sensed that all was not right. Standing with stranded passengers, I was embarrassingly directed to Valet Parking by a security guard on the other side of the glass, where I accessed the terminal by the back door. I was escorted to the crew room and emptied my pigeonhole of mail before being escorted off the premises once again. There were no water cannons from fire trucks or final parking of the brakes for Ansett pilots; just an ignominious administrative process.
Across the network, the scene was played out in varying forms. I was fortunately stranded in my home base, but for hundreds, they were abandoned in ports near and far. There were tales of generosity by hire car companies that ferried crews free of charge while conversely others were being bailed up in foyers by hotel staff demanding the payment of room tariffs. Most disturbingly, some received the news from the company in flight by ACARS and had to fly on knowing that they were now unemployed. By whichever means the word was received, it was not good.
Where to from here?
The immediate fallout from the collapse was really a blend of false hope and confusion. Ansett Mk. II was mooted as an option, but the reality was that the odds were always stacked against it. Employees gathered in mutual consolation and endeavoured to call information ‘hot-lines’ that were always engaged. Resumes and logbooks were hurriedly updated, and job applications were already underway.
For some pilots, the limbo was filled by the offer of contract work by other airlines and this covered the breach in the short term, yet unbelievably some Ansett management refused to provide references to their pilots who now faced a very uncertain future. They were days of chaos and the individuals were best advised to carve their own path and see if anything positive emerged from the ruins; waiting for that as a lone hope was fraught with frustration.
To this backdrop, there were very sad instances of suicide. I don’t know if it can necessarily be claimed that they were the direct result of the airline’s failure, but undoubtedly the growing confusion and pressure would not have helped anyone in a fragile state of mind. Personally, when I was offered a contract position, I rang a manager directly to discuss my options. I received a very disinterested response which included, “I’ve never heard of you” and “Are you new?” An interesting answer considering that I’d been with the company for the best part of a decade and Ansett hadn’t recruited for many years. More to the point, I reflected how such an inept, callous reply would have affected me if I was teetering on the brink.
Amidst the disarray, pilots scattered far and wide. Ansett had not required its pilots to necessarily hold a pass in Year 12 Physics and this proved a bizarre stumbling block for many highly experienced pilots seeking employment elsewhere. In the early days, many migrated abroad by fleet; 737 pilots to New Zealand, the UK and Japan and 767 pilots to Europe, while the Ansett Mark II carrot was dangled for the Airbus A320 crews. Meanwhile, the aircraft started disappearing almost overnight, returned to lessors or ferried to Melbourne where they awaited sale or the scrapper’s guillotine.
Ultimately, the company entered administration under the mantle of Mentha and Korda. Financial uncertainty was the major element of many employees’ distress and the wait to sell off assets was destined to be a slow process. There was some initial relief provided by the Federal Government in covering the eight weeks redundancy pay that was owed to employees. This was made available through a loan which was subsequently repaid by the travelling public in the form of a “ticket levy”. However, accusations continue that the ticket levy was prolonged unnecessarily and ultimately raised far more money than the employees ever saw.
For the employees who were owed over $750 million in entitlements, the administrator’s payments have continued to trickle in over the years, but budgeting on one cent of this money was never really an option. Over a decade, a return of 95 cents in the dollar was achieved, which is a good effort in terms of collapsed companies. Even so, many employees never regained the career footing they once held, and their family and financial lives were changed forever.
The Road Less Travelled.
The demise of Ansett forced the pilot body to face the reality that an airline job in Australia was no longer necessarily a job for life. In 2001, this was quite a mindset to overcome and the speed with which many adapted is a critical lesson in coping with such a setback.
For many, their careers have flourished in the wake of Ansett. They have flown aircraft they never would have operated and seen ports they would never have previously imagined. While some set sail for foreign shores, a good number simply side-stepped to other Australian carriers. Some have risen to hold Chief Pilot positions with major airlines, while others have bounced back to managerial roles of a training, technical, or developmental nature. A few also joined the ATSB and CASA in Flight Operations roles and still cast a watchful eye over the industry. Others have left aviation altogether and pursued careers as varied as property developers and university lecturers to successful coffee chain owners. There was indeed life after Ansett.
The Comfort Zone.
Unfortunately, not all of the employees have shared the fruitful gains of their former workmates. For many, they were unable to subsequently find gainful employment in aviation, while others who did watch their careers stall or go backwards. The shift to foreign soil was advantageous for some, but for others, the move or the nomadic nature of contract flying, and commuting proved wearing on the family environment. A large number have found their way home to Australia through the airlines that have been born in the aftermath of Ansett.
Whichever path was chosen or thrust upon the Ansett employees, there was some core, unassailable truths learnt with devastating effect. Primarily, that in the modern world, very little is forever. Airline employees like their corporate cousins are now critically susceptible to the ebb and flow of global economies and re-structuring. Airlines in Australia were once a ‘job for life’, but that falsehood came crashing down around our ears in 2001. It was a lesson that most other professions, and several American airlines, had learnt in the preceding decades. Those employees saw several career changes on their horizon and learnt to plan a fall-back position. Many Ansett employees have never felt secure, or expected security, in their employment ever since. This is part of their legacy and one of their scars.
This insecurity need not be a negative as evidenced by the array of staff that has gone onto bigger and better things. In many instances, employees were forced off the treadmill and out of their comfort zone and it proved to have a positive effect on their life, if not necessarily their career. Additionally, as other professions already knew, the pursuit of ongoing education is an insurance policy and an escape clause should things go to the wall once again. I realised this very early on after the collapse when a Centrelink consultant advised me that I was “highly skilled, but totally unemployable”. My past life as a Paramedic was far more relevant to the real world than the thousands of hours of flight experience I had accrued, so I headed off to university to attain some recognised qualifications.
Anyone who lived through the Ansett collapse was changed in some way, whether it was a true watershed moment or simply the infusion of some healthy suspicion. Regardless, things had definitely not gone to plan, so some re-adjustments on the run were required by one and all.
Personally, I was very fortunate. My line in the sand was to fly professionally and remain in the family home we had built. I have intentionally accumulated qualifications independent of my flying and created a buffer zone for my career and in the midst of this pandemic, I’m grateful that I did. Still, I harbour no degree of complacency about future job security. Equally, I recognise that not all of my fellow Ansett pilots have been so lucky, while others have blown me out of the water in the career stakes. Some now face uncertainty yet again. Such is the nature of any major upheaval on a workforce.
What Ansett’s passing reinforced is that one’s world can change significantly overnight. Childhood aspirations can be dashed, and life’s plans changed irreversibly by elements that are effectively out of the individual’s hands. A confronting concept for pilot’s who live in a world of relative order and planning. Nor does this mean that it must always be a negative experience, but it should be a scenario considered just as one caters for an alternate airport.
The aviation climate in Australia has changed incredibly over the last decade, from 9/11 to low-cost carriers and beyond. The human face of that change is often glossed over, but for former Ansett employees, there will always be a level of wariness borne of experience. If asked, would they wish to go through it all again? Definitely not! Are they proud to have been associated with a great airline, but a lousy business? Absolutely!
Stay safe everyone and see you tomorrow.