Behind Qantas’ warm and friendly image is a steel core, as many unions, former employees and other disaffected stakeholders have discovered. The latest to feel the wrath of the airline is former Qantas golden boy, Nick Rohrlach, who the airline recently wanted to do jail time.
One resignation too many for Qantas
Mr Rohrlach defected from Qantas around 12 months ago to join Virgin Australia as CEO of its Velocity frequent flyer program. There is nothing particularly unusual there – in the relatively incestuous world of Australia’s airline upper management, carrier hopping isn’t uncommon.
What upset Qantas was that Mr Rohrlach took the job at Virgin Australia just a month or two after accepting a new role at Qantas loyalty. In that month or two, Qantas said Mr Rohrlach became privy to all sorts of secret Qantas loyalty business that could later be used against it.
Nick Rohrlach had worked at Qantas for a decade, including as Head of Planning and Strategy and as co-CEO of Jetstar Japan. When Mr Rohrlach gave notice to Qantas, the airline immediately moved to enforce a series of contractual clauses, including a nine-month no-compete clause.
A messy legal battle followed, but the end result was Qantas lost their man but did manage to enforce the non-compete clause. In September, Mr Rohrlach finally started his role at Virgin Australia and has set about shaking up Australia’s second-largest airline loyalty program.
Qantas pushes for jail time
But in November, Qantas was back in court, saying Mr Rohrlach had breached a court injunction that prevented him from conducting Virgin Australia business until the nine-month non-compete period ended or the legal process wrapped up.
According to The Australian newspaper, Nick Rohrlach breached the injunction twice. On one occasion, he put another Virgin Australia executive in touch with the head of an AI recruitment firm. He also attended an online meet and greet with another external stakeholder on a second occasion.
For his sins, Qantas’ lawyers asked Singapore High Courts to jail their former executive, saying a fine was insufficient.
Luckily, Judge Mavis Chionh Sze Chyi disagreed. She fined Mr Rohrlach SG$25,000 (US$18,225), but added he would have to do a week’s jail time if he failed to pay. The Judge said Qantas could not prove what prejudice the breaches caused it.
While accepting the High Court’s decision, a Virgin Australia spokesperson told Simple Flying the airline and Nick Rohrlach were considering its options.
“We believe these proceedings were commenced by Qantas for the sole purpose of attempting to damage Mr Rohrlach’s reputation after he chose to leave his employment with Qantas and join Virgin Australia,” the spokesperson said.
“Underscoring the vindictive nature of this action by Qantas, we understand that the penalty sought by Qantas has absolutely no precedent in an employment context in Singapore Law. It is astonishing that Qantas would pursue an ex-employee, with ten years of loyal service, in this way.”
Simple Flying has approached Qantas about the matter, but the airline has not responded before our publication deadline.
Nick Rohrlach follows a well-worn path to Virgin Australia
Nick Rohrlach followed a well-worn path to Virgin Australia. The airline’s CEO, Jayne Hrdlicka, is a former Jetstar CEO and Qantas alumni. Once in the hot seat at Virgin Australia, Ms Hrdlicka began picking off Qantas/Jetstar senior executives she knew well. Ms Hrdlicka was a popular boss at Jetstar, with her internal following referred to as “Team Jayne.” Unfortunately for Nick Rohrlach, it is his defection that really raised Qantas’ ire.
However, it’s not all sweetness and light at Virgin Australia either. Recently, the airline lost its Chief Corporate Affairs Officer after just eight months in the job. Moksha Watts left the airline amid internal recriminations, resignations, and front-page newspaper headlines about her workplace behaviour.
Moksha Watts had previously worked at multiple airlines, including Etihad, Qantas, and Jetstar. At Jetstar, Ms Watts was firmly in the Team Jayne camp. But that alliance wasn’t enough to save her once word of the internal problems in Virgin Australia’s corporate affairs offices came out.
Nick Rohrlach may be feeling the media heat this week, but his reputation as a nice guy and strong support within Virgin Australia indicates his role in the Team Jayne camp is rock solid.