SYDNEY (Reuters) - The chairman of Australia's Qantas Airways on Wednesday vowed to stay in his role despite a host of scandals engulfing the airline, saying its biggest shareholders wanted leadership continuity even as its shares track a one-year low.
In a parliamentary hearing, Richard Goyder resisted weeks of pressure to resign, including from the airline's own pilots, saying that he had followed "high ethics" throughout his career, and that investors considered him the best person to lead the company through a reputational crisis.
Goyder's testimony at a Senate committee amounted to a tense showdown between one of Australia's most revered corporate leaders and top lawmakers, who accused him of presiding over a company involved in potential abuse of market power and violation of consumer law, and found to have illegally sacked workers.
After the airline's long-standing CEO retired early this month, citing the need for renewal, unions, consumer groups and investors have turned their sights to Goyder. Stock analysts have downgraded the stock, citing rising costs of buying fuel and repairing its customer service systems.
"I've had meetings with our major shareholders two weeks ago, and they are very strongly supportive of me staying," Goyder told the hearing.
"I would also argue that my history in business has been of high ethics," he added, noting that he led conglomerate Wesfarmers through the 2009 financial crisis as CEO before taking Qantas "through the most existential crisis we've had as an airline".
"While I retain the confidence of shareholders and the board, I will continue to serve. If that confidence isn't maintained, then clearly I will review that decision," he said.
Asked about a federal government decision to stop Qatar Airways from doubling its potential flights to Australia, new Qantas CEO Vanessa Hudson confirmed her company sent a confidential submission to the government in 2022 opposing the rival's request on grounds that "it's been incredibly important to let the market recover from the effects of COVID".
But she and Goyder, the Qantas chairman since 2018, denied having any discussions about the Qatari request with any member of the federal government.
The decision has been a lightning rod for consumer outrage at Qantas, which sells three-fifths of all Australian domestic airline tickets, because it limited competition that might have pushed fares lower, according to antitrust experts.
Jayne Hrdlicka, the CEO of Qantas's biggest domestic competitor, Virgin Australia, told the Senate hearing she regretted not lobbying harder for extra flights from Qatar, a partner airline.
"We honestly believed that the Qatar rights bid would be approved," Hrdlicka said. "It was unthinkable that it wouldn't be. The country is starving for extra capacity."
Qatar Airways' senior vice-president of global sales, Matt Raos, told the hearing the company was "surprised and shocked" its application was denied without a reason given.
(This story has been refiled to remove an extraneous word in paragraph 4)
(Reporting by Byron Kaye, Editing by Gerry Doyle)