The Qantas chief executive, Alan Joyce, has advised the board he will quit immediately, bringing forward his retirement by two months following a tumultuous few weeks for the airline.
Joyce has served as CEO since 2008 and had been set to step down at the airline’s annual general meeting in November as part of a curated transition.
But on Tuesday morning Joyce said in a statement: “In the last few weeks, the focus on Qantas and events of the past make it clear to me that the company needs to move ahead with its renewal as a priority.
“The best thing I can do under these circumstances is to bring forward my retirement and hand over to Vanessa [Hudson] and the new management team now, knowing they will do an excellent job.
“There is a lot I am proud of over my 22 years at Qantas, including the past 15 years as CEO. There have been many ups and downs, and there is clearly much work still to be done, especially to make sure we always deliver for our customers. But I leave knowing that the company is fundamentally strong and has a bright future.”
Hudson will assume the role of managing director and group CEO on Wednesday.
The company’s chairman, Richard Goyder, said on Tuesday: “Alan has always had the best interests of Qantas front and centre and today shows that.
“On behalf of the board, we sincerely thank him for his leadership through some enormous challenges and for thinking well ahead on opportunities like ultra-long-haul travel,” Goyder said.
“This transition comes at what is obviously a challenging time for Qantas and its people. We have an important job to do in restoring the public’s confidence in the kind of company we are and that’s what the board is focused on – and what the management under Vanessa’s leadership will do.”
Qantas’s image has taken a battering in recent weeks.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) on Thursday announced it was taking legal action against the airline over allegations it had sold tickets to more than 8,000 flights it had already cancelled in its system.
Qantas has conceded its image has been “hit hard on several fronts” due to soaring customer dissatisfaction – it was the most complained about company to the ACCC for the past two years – stubbornly high airfares, thousands of job cuts, and refusing to hand back billions in jobkeeper and government subsidies even as the airline posted a record $2.47bn profit in August.
Pressure on Joyce and senior Qantas leaders had been building, with the airline’s board urged to withhold millions of dollars in executive bonuses. Joyce had been expected to walk away in November with a pay packet totalling as much as $24m.
In Canberra, there was momentum for a Senate inquiry to investigate the airline’s relationship with the government, focusing on Labor’s decision to reject a request by Qatar Airways to almost double its capacity into Australia.
Qantas on Monday conceded its reputation had been “hit hard on several fronts” before the consumer watchdog launched its legal action. The airline admitted “it will take time to repair” its standing in the eyes of Australians.
In a lengthy statement on Monday, Qantas said it was still reviewing the ACCC’s allegations the airline had sold tickets for flights that were already cancelled.
Qantas said it would have more to say after reviewing the case but acknowledged “these allegations have caused significant concern among our customers, our people and the general community”.
The federal transport minister, Catherine King, said Joyce’s decision “marks the end of one era and the start of a new one with both major Australian airlines led by women”.
“His decision to bring forward his retirement from Qantas provides an opportunity for new leadership. I wish Vanessa Hudson every success,” King said.
The Labor senator Tony Sheldon – a long-time critic of Qantas who sparred with Joyce at a committee hearing last week – said the outgoing chief executive’s legacy was “a workforce split across 38 companies and a brand now synonymous with low pay, insecure work, illegal sackings and consumer rip-offs”.
Sheldon said “the Qantas board cannot hide behind Joyce’s resignation” and he called on Goyder to also depart. “The board has backed Joyce’s behaviour at every step and must be held equally accountable for the disgraceful state of the company.”
The Transport Workers’ Union national secretary, Michael Kaine, said the Australian people had caught up with the type of Qantas that Joyce was running.
The union boss claimed the airline had become known for its “decimated workforce, service standards through the floor and airfares through the roof”.
“One of the few good decisions [the board] made recently is saying to Alan Joyce ‘your time is up’,” Kaine said on Tuesday.
Qantas pilots welcomed the news as a “circuit breaker”. The Australian and International Pilots Association president, captain Tony Lucas, said his union looked forward to working with Hudson “to rebuild our iconic airline”.
“The Spirit of Australia may be deflated, but it is not defeated and if we all work together, I’m confident Qantas can be great once more,” Lucas said.