As Qantas gears up to celebrate its 100th anniversary at the end of 2019, we look back to a time when the Australian flag-carrier almost merged with Singapore Airlines to create an Asia-Pacific colossus of aviation.
After British Airways offloaded its 18.25% cornerstone stake in Qantas in late 2004, the Flying Kangaroo began seeking a strategic partner closer to home – and following rebuffs from fellow Oneworld member Cathay Pacific, that gaze fell on Singapore Airlines.
It made sense for both airlines.
Qantas knew it needed a strong ally to sharpen its edge in an increasingly competitive market.
Singapore's Changi Airport was already the popular stop-over for Qantas flights to London and Frankfurt, while the Singapore Airlines hub could offer Qantas travellers scores of other onwards connections around the globe.
For its part, Singapore Airlines had long been Australia’s most popular international airline after Qantas itself (a ranking eclipsed by Emirates only after the Qantas-Emirates alliance took wing in 2013).
As Matt O’Sullivan recounts in his book Mayday: How Warring Egos Forced Qantas Off Course, early 2005 saw Qantas’ three most senior executives – CEO Geoff Dixon, Chief Financial Officer Peter Gregg and Executive General Manager, John Borghetti – jetting to Singapore and later Bangkok (to avoid ‘galley gossip’ by suspicious Qantas crew) 'for secret meetings with their counterparts at Singapore Airlines.'
The billion-dollar play
The temporary truce between erstwhile rivals saw investment bankers diving headlong into each airline’s spreadsheets, and ‘the results were mind-blowing for both airline camps.'
'A merged airline group could lead to billions of dollars of extra benefits that neither of them could achieve by flying solo' O'Sullivan details.
'Under the plans, the airlines would form a fifty-fifty joint venture and merge their networks', although each airline’s highly-recognisable brand would remain.
Behind-the-scenes lobbying ensured that both the Australian and Singaporean governments expressed tacit support for the merger.
But Qantas’ prior success in convincing the Australian government to block Singapore Airlines from flying between Australia and the USA, and its reluctance to shutter the recently-launched and Singapore-based budget airline Jetstar Asia, made bitter tea for the Singapore Airlines executives.
And, as O’Sullivan recounts, more turbulence lay ahead.
A marriage of unequals?
'Singapore Airlines’ market capitalisation was larger than Qantas'. The Singaporeans felt, quite rightly, that they were getting the rough end of the deal from Qantas, which was pushing for a merger of equals – a fifty-fifty split.'
'The structure of a merged airline also led to the important question of who would become chairman and chief executive.'
Qantas chief Geoff Dixon wanted to remain CEO of the merged airline, but to allay concerns of Australians and Singaporeans alike – who felt a deep sense of nationalistic pride and almost ownership of their respective flag-carriers – 'the executives toyed with the idea of a dual board, each of which would have its own chairman.'
But talks stalled after less than six months, O’Sullivan writes.
'A deal that would have strengthened Qantas immeasurably had slipped through the hands of its senior executives for a bunch of reasons – too much ego from the Australians topped the list.'
'Neither side could agree on who would become chief executive of a merged airline group. The Singaporeans feared that Dixon, the wily Australian, would end up running one of their best-known companies.'
'"The moment has probably passed," Dixon said in October 2005. "There are moments in time, in all parts of your life, that sometimes things can happen and other times when they can’t."'
The postscript to this is that Singapore Airlines continues an active interest in the Australian market.
1999 saw Singapore Airlines make a $500 million pitch for control of Ansett Australia in 1999 – which Air New Zealand countered with a $680 million knock-out bid, only to see the troubled Ansett collapse like a deck of cards two years later.
In 2001 came an audacious $250 million offer for the fledgling Virgin Blue, rejected in the most public of fashion when Richard Branson tore up a mock cheque at a hastily-convened press conference at Melbourne Airport.
Today, Singapore Airlines is one of several airlines with a stake in Virgin Australia.