Virgin Australia is putting up its hand to help in any evacuations of Australians from international trouble spots, challenging perceptions that rival Qantas is the airline to call on in times of need.
It comes as Virgin’s three largest shareholders – Air New Zealand, Singapore Airlines and Etihad – are about to raise their combined stake to almost 67 per cent after just a quarter of retail investors took up their rights to buy new shares. The big three shareholders underwrote Virgin’s controversial $350 million capital raising.
With debate intensifying about whether Australia wants a national flag carrier, the two largest airlines are battling for the upper hand in the court of public opinion.
Qantas remains the first port of call when the government needs a commercial airline to evacuate Australians caught up in strife-torn countries.
But Virgin’s acting chief operating officer, Lawrie Turner, said Australia’s second-largest airline had made it clear to the government that it now had a fleet of long-haul aircraft capable of flying Australians out of conflict zones or areas struck by natural disasters.
‘‘There has been some communication with the government. We have put to them in writing, emphasising what we are always there ready to do,’’ he said. ‘‘We are not looking at this to get work.’’
Mr Turner said the airline wanted to make sure that ‘‘everybody understands that we are a vital part of Australia and we contribute to the social fabric of the country’’.
The two airlines have been embroiled in a bitter public spat since last month when Qantas demanded the federal government step in to stop Virgin’s big-three airline shareholders from tightening their grip on the carrier.
Qantas has also been seeking financial assistance from the government, a move that has so far been met with severe reservations from Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Transport Minister Warren Truss.
Qantas has a long history of evacuating Australians from overseas trouble spots, including from Egypt during the Arab Spring in early 2011 and from Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Maldives after the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004.
The airline once held a world record for carrying the most passengers on a 747 jumbo when it evacuated 672 people on a flight from Darwin in 1974 in the aftermath of cyclone Tracy.
Qantas said payment by the government for the evacuation of Australians depended on the circumstances, but insisted that at best it would only cover the cost of operating rescue flights.
‘‘The record shows Qantas has been there over and over to help bring Australians home when there is a crisis,’’ a Qantas spokesman said.