VIRGIN Australia has responded to the backlash against its controversial new boarding rule, which was slammed by some flyers who said they would abandon the airline.
VIRGIN Australia has responded to the backlash against its plan to honour Australian war veterans on its flights.
The airline had said military veterans would get priority boarding, and their presence would be publicly acknowledged during in-flight announcements, in a move similar to what is seen in the United States.
But today it faced widespread criticism, including from some veterans, who called the decision an “embarrassment”.
“We are very mindful of the response that our announcement about recognising people who have served in defence has had today, and it was a gesture genuinely done to pay respects to those who have served our country,” Virgin Australia Group chief executive John Borghetti said this afternoon.
“Over the coming months, we will be working consultatively with community groups and our own team members who have served in defence to determine the best way forward.
“If this consultative process determines that public acknowledgement of their service through optional priority boarding is not appropriate, then we will certainly be respectful of that.”
That statement represented a drastic backdown from Virgin’s original announcement.
“We acknowledge the important contribution veterans have made to keeping our country safe and the role they play in our community,” Virgin Australia chief executive officer John Borghetti told Brisbane’s Sunday Mail yesterday.
“Once the veterans have their cards and lapel pins, they will simply need to present them during the boarding process to be given priority boarding and be recognised on board.”
Rival airline Qantas said it would not be following Virgin’s lead.
“We carry a lot of exceptional people every day, including veterans, police, paramedics, nurses, firefighters and others, and so we find it difficult to single out a particular group as part of the boarding process,” it said.
The federal government this week announced a discount card for returned servicemen and women, along with a jobs program to connect veterans with suitable employers.
Defence Industry Minister Steven Ciobo supported Virgin’s idea, saying it was “tremendous” for the airline to salute the service of soldiers.
“If we can get though not just airlines, but if we can do this across the board, I think that is part of reinforcing respect in the Australian community for these men and women,” Mr Ciobo told Sky News.
“I want to congratulate Virgin for, in many respects, being a trailblazer.” Mr Chester also welcomed the announcement, but acknowledged many veterans would sooner embrace discounted airfares.
“Australians, by nature, tend to keep their light under a bushel. Some would be happy to get on the plane without anyone knowing they are there,” he said.
American airlines have long asked passengers to stand and applaud service men and women on flights and thank them for their service. Many carriers also offer discounts on prices and special deals on baggage.
But not everyone was as thrilled as Mr Ciobo.
Prominent veteran Catherine McGregor said she “would not dream of walking on to an aircraft ahead of the other passengers as a veteran” and the idea was simply “more nationalist crap”.
“Can’t imagine too many people I served with doing this either. Spend more on suicide prevention and health support. Faux American bollocks,” she wrote.
Ray Martin, a retired Army officer, said veterans “don’t need lapels or gestures”.
“We’re the kind of people who stand back for others. We don’t need priority in a line to board a plane.”
Another veteran, Rodger Shanahan, said he had been “inundated with messages from the veterans community asking what the hell is going on with this”.
“Friggin’ embarrassment personified. Anzac Day is sufficient thanks,” he said.
Coincidentally, Mr Shanahan wrote a piece for the Lowy Institute last week warning Australia was in danger of reaching “peak veteran”.
“Rather than sanctifying military service, the media and politicians should dvote more of their energies to recognising those who work on behalf of the greater good in often traumatic, and always difficult circumstances at home,” he wrote.
“Many in the veterans community do noble service and they do look after those who have fallen on hard times, but there is a large support base that already caters to them. Military veterans should also spare a thought for community and emergency service workers who do the hard yards day in and day out with a fraction of the recognition.”
On Channel 7, Senators Pauline Hanson and Derryn Hinch shared an exceedingly rare moment of agreement in their opposition to the move.
“I have worked with veterans and I think they would find it embarrassing,” Ms Hanson said.
“You now have veterans who are in their twenties. We look after the people who are feeble by putting them on the plane first. I think it is a marketing ploy by Virgin. I don’t think veterans want to use priority boarding.”
“Pauline is right. Get that in writing,” Mr Hinch said, sparking laughter.
“A lot of veterans don’t want to draw that sort of attention.”
He pointed to Dr Brendan Nelson’s plan to upgrade the Australian War Memorial as a better tribute to veterans.
The reaction from less prominent people on social media was similar.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but surely there are far better, more suitable ways of honouring and thanking our war veterans? This all feels like one big ad for Virgin Australia,” Leo James commented.
“Honouring veterans if they choose to fly Virgin Australia? Sounds like commercialising Australians service personnel to me. Most I’ve met and know are pretty humble, they don’t want a fuss,” said Andrew Heslop.
“Are we also going to thank paramedics, nurses, doctors, teachers, social workers — those who also serve society? It elevates one group of people above others,” Collette Snowdon tweeted.
“Where does it end? American nonsense. Will not fly Virgin if this goes ahead.”
Virgin Australia’s announcement came as the Federal Government revealed a suite of new measures for veterans, including a discount card for returned service men and women and a program to help them find suitable work.
The Government has also committed $500 million to an expansion of the Australian War Memorial.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the need to nurture respect for veterans was “brought home for me heavily during the Invictus Games” in Sydney in October.
“When I talk to veterans from other countries, they are just so touched by the culture of respect Australians have for veterans,” he said.
“Prince Harry said the same thing to me (at the Games). It was really on display and I just don’t want to take that for granted.
“And as a government I want to ensure we are doing everything we can to protect, preserve and facilitate it.”