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Why we go cross-eyed over Qantas

By Will Turner - posted Friday, 11 November 2011

If the extent of the media coverage about last week's Qantas grounding fiasco is any measure, our society's fascination with the airline industry goes much deeper than most of us realise.

In business terms Qantas is a dwarf in comparison with other major Australian companies. Consider this statistic: for the financial year just past Qantas reported a net profit of $250 million while BHP Billiton's was $22.5 billion. Think Jupiter and Pluto.

Yet we are clearly obsessed with all things aviation. In a sense this should not be a surprise considering the geography of our giant island continent and the love Australians have for the international stage whether it be through our Hollywood stars, sporting heroes or national business-come-cultural icons.


After reflecting on the place it has had even in my own life story, I have come to the conclusion that most of us have a connection with this mode of transport because it relates to so much of what ignites our imagination.

My first ever overseas trip was on a Qantas jumbo jet which took me to North America on a student exchange. The highlight of that trip was a visit to New York City, including a scaling of the World Trade Center not long before it was obliterated.

Fresh from high school I found myself cutting my teeth as an adult in 2001 working for one of Australia's large financial services companies. I spent most of the year seconded to Qantas – it was quite a time to be inside the beast. I saw globalisation in action – a key aspect of the project I was part of involved a massive shift of data entry jobs from Sydney to Mexico and an overhaul of how the company processed the intricate ticketing arrangements with partner and rival carriers.

In Australia alone two airlines collapsed that year, while passenger jets were the literally the vehicle that delivered the global event of the decade on September 11.

Fast forward to today and yet again an Australian snapshot of what is happening in the world at large is being profoundly influenced by the happenings of the airline industry – in particular the drama of the flying kangaroo as it tries to stop its international arm from bleeding red ink. To an outsider the media coverage about Qantas must appear to be a case of disproportionate fascination.

Upon reflection, however, seldom are people's senses excited on a rational basis. To take another example, it could be said that the very existence of the United States Studies Centre where I work is the result of over-interest in a country with less than 5 per cent of the world's population and which most people believe is in decline.


Yet perhaps there is something sane about the things that intrigue us. The Qantas story in 2011 is in many respects a microcosm of the global dynamics of our time: people and nations trying to make sense of and get ahead in a world that is unstable, hot and crowded.

I suspect I am not alone in finding a connection between the happenings of companies that push tin and the reality of the wider world of which we are a part. This is because we all want to understand the times we are living in and imagine where our own journeys might take us.

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About the Author

Will Turner is a Media Officer at the United States Studies Centre at The University of Sydney, NSW.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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