Qantas Takes Ex-Executive To Court Over New Virgin Australia Job

Qantas is attempting to stop one of its former executives taking up a new role at competitor Virgin Australia. Nick Rohrlach, who has worked for the Qantas Group since mid-2011, jumped ship to Virgin Australia earlier this year. The move hasn’t gone down well at Qantas. So much so, Australia’s biggest airline has launched legal action to enforce contractual clauses and delay Mr Rohrlach from beginning his new role.

Qantas has launched legal action to delay a former executive taking up a job at Virgin Australia. Photo: Virgin Australia

Qantas moves to delay executive appointment at Virgin Australia

After varied roles within the Qantas Group, Mr Rohrlach took up a Qantas Loyalty role in October 2020. Four months later, Virgin Australia successfully poached him to head up their Velocity loyalty program.

Last week, Qantas began legal action in the New South Wales Supreme Court on March 5 over the move. Virgin Australia confirmed to Simple Flying that they are a party to that action.

“As is appropriate with matters before the court, Virgin will put its evidence and arguments in court under a court-mandated timetable,” a Virgin Australia spokesperson said.

Qantas says Nick Rohrlach may have confidential data from Qantas Loyalty that could benefit him in his role as CEO of Velocity. That includes information about Qantas Loyalty’s future plans and detailed knowledge of commercial partnerships.

There is no suggestion Mr Rohrlach has misused any insider information he may have about Qantas loyalty. And Qantas cannot prevent their former executive from jumping ship. But they can try to delay it.

After a tough 2020, Virgin Australia is getting back to business. Photo: Andrew Curran / Simple Flying

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Qantas hits out at the Virgin Australia recruitment

Qantas wants to enforce a six-month non-compete contractual clause on top of a three-month notice period. If successful, that will delay Mr Rohrlach’s start date at Virgin Australia by nine months.

Qantas declined to comment on the matter when approached by Simple Flying. However, Robyn Ironside, writing for The Australian on Monday, quotes a Qantas spokesperson saying;

“Virgin’s behavior on this matter is disappointing at best and unscrupulous at worst. Virgin chose to recruit a senior Qantas Group executive knowing that he would almost certainly be subject to a necessarily long wait before starting with them.

“If they weren’t aware beforehand, Virgin now knows that his contract requires a six-month wait, that Mr Rohrlach had accepted a senior role in Qantas Loyalty and had received highly sensitive information in preparation for starting that role.”

Simple Flying has approached Mr Rohrlach regarding the dispute.

Several executive-level changes at Virgin Australia

After a very tough 2020 during which the airline collapsed, was restructured, and sold to new owners, Virgin Australia has struggled to gain traction against Qantas.

The new Virgin Australia owners brought in a new CEO, Jayne Hrdlicka. Ironically, Ms Hrdlicka is also a former long-time Qantas Group executive. But unlike Mr Rohrlach, Ms Hrdlicka put some space between her last Qantas Group role and her new gig at Virgin Australia.

Nonetheless, soon after her appointment, Jayne Hrdlicka went to work refreshing Virgin Australia’s executive team. In January, Virgin Australia’s new leadership team was announced. Many of the new executives had career histories that involved the Qantas Group. But with Australia’s relatively small pool of airline executives and the ties between them, that can be hard to avoid.

Virgin Australia CEO Jayne Hrdlicka (right) has recruited several ex-Qantas Group executives recently. Photo: Virgin Australia

A counter play by Nick Rohrlach and Virgin Australia

Meanwhile, the New South Wales Supreme Court will mention the matter on Tuesday. There is some dispute over who should hear the case. Nick Rohrlach signed his employment contract with Virgin Australia in Singapore. Mr Rohrlach also filed proceedings against Qantas in Singapore on March 1. Virgin Australia is a party to that filing.

Mr Rohrlach wants to argue Qantas’ non-compete clause is unenforceable. Virgin Australia says Singapore is the jurisdiction in which any contract dispute should be settled. Qantas would prefer the matter heard in Sydney.

Publicly, Virgin Australia is adopting an upbeat stance over the matter. The airline has said it did nothing wrong, people change jobs all the time, and they remain confident the matter will be dealt with appropriately.

“(Virgin Australia) categorically deny that we have been anything but proper and appropriate in Mr Rohrlach’s recruitment. We are confident our position will be vindicated in court.