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Qantas slashing and selling to survive

Thursday, February 27 07:32:42

Qantas Airways Ltd is axing 15 percent of its workforce, slashing spending and selling gas-guzzling older planes after stiff competition at home and overseas pushed the Australian flag carrier deep into the red in the first half.

In the most radical surgery at the airline since it was privatised two decades ago, Qantas plans to cut costs by A$2 billion ($1.8 billion) over the next three years. It hopes the shakeup will convince the Australian government Qantas is worthy of the state assistance it says it desperately needs.

Bruised by high fuel costs, a strong Australian dollar, increasing international competition and a domestic price war with arch-rival Virgin Australia Holdings, the national flag carrier saw its debt relegated to junk status by rating agency Standard & Poor's in December. Qantas is now asking the government for a debt guarantee, which would give it access to cheaper capital.

The so-called 'Flying Kangaroo' also wants the government to change a law dating back to Qantas's privatisation that restricts how much money foreign investors can put into the carrier. Qantas claims Virgin Australia's unfettered access to foreign capital has given it an unfair advantage.

"We will cut where we can in order to invest where we must," Chief Executive Alan Joyce told a news conference after the company reported what was only its second first-half loss since privatisation in 1995. "We will be a far leaner Qantas Group."

Speaking in parliament after the results were announced, Prime Minister Tony Abbott offered encouragement without concrete proposals.

"We want to ensure that Qantas is not competing against its rivals with a ball and chain around its leg," Abbott said.

While Joyce said discussions were continuing with the government, Abbott appeared to shy away from a debt guarantee, saying that would need to be offered to all airlines if it was given to Qantas.

The government is drafting changes to the Qantas Sale Act to lift the current 49 percent foreign ownership limit, as well as alter restrictions on smaller shareholdings for foreign airlines. But that move will likely be blocked by opposition in the Upper House of parliament, preventing it from becoming law. ( C ) Reuters