QANTAS chief executive Alan Joyce has condemned a group of renegade investors as "Airline Partners Australia Mark II" as he tried to block their destablisation strategy.
His criticism of the group's plans to sell off parts of the airline followed Qantas severing its financial support to Tourism Australia because of what it deemed the conflicted position of its chairman, Geoff Dixon.
Mr Dixon is a part of the loose group of investors pushing for change.
Tourism Australia held an emergency board meeting on Wednesday after the federal Tourism Minister, Martin Ferguson, referred the matter to its directors to resolve.
By the time of going to press, the board had yet to say what it would do. To try to end what Qantas sees as a slow-burn strategy by the renegade investors, Mr Joyce mounted a spirited defence of his five-year blueprint for Qantas, and criticised key aspects of the rebel investors' plans to sell the budget offshoot Jetstar and the Frequent Flyer loyalty scheme.
While declining to detail the breakdown in his relationship with Mr Dixon, he insisted that his top priority was the airline and his strategy aimed at turning around its underperforming international division.
"I don't want to be distracted from it," he said. "Personal relationships and anything else around it are secondary to doing the right thing by Qantas."
Mr Joyce said he had not met Mr Dixon, the former Qantas boss, for a "catch up" for eight months. Before their relationship soured late last year, the pair met as often as every fortnight in swish Sydney eateries. The group of investors, including Mr Dixon, the former Qantas executive Peter Gregg, Sydney money man Mark Carnegie and adman John Singleton has been seeking support from large shareholders and unions for a change in strategic direction at the airline.
They have questioned the benefits to Qantas of the proposed alliance with Emirates.
Mr Joyce said Mr Dixon was a member of the "APA Mark II club", noting that the group included some key players from the failed $11.1 billion bid for Qantas in 2007 by Airline Partners Australia. Mr Dixon, who had once been a mentor to Mr Joyce, declined to comment on Wednesday.
The Qantas boss said Mr Dixon was "very much out there briefing against the company", and he had no choice but to suspend the airline's longstanding relationship with Tourism Australia.
Late on Tuesday, Mr Joyce wrote to Mr Ferguson to say that Qantas was suspending its dealings with Tourism Australia because he believed Mr Dixon was in a "position of significant and untenable potential conflict". He said: "The consortium is determined to stymie the Qantas-Emirates partnership, which has otherwise been enthusiastically embraced by the tourism industry, our customers and our shareholders."
Qantas is the largest private funder of Tourism Australia, followed by Emirates. Its three-year funding program for the tourism body totals $44 million, and is up for renewal next July.
The Tourism Minister appoints the chairman and the rest of the tourism body's board, which includes as a director the former Virgin boss Brett Godfrey. Describing the dispute as a "commercial matter", the minister left it in the hands of the board to resolve. In defending his five-year strategy, Mr Joyce described the proposed Emirates alliance as a "killer" deal, which would be key to turning around Qantas' international operations.
Qantas had made clear inroads into Asia with Jetstar, and it would be "premature" to pursue a sale of parts of the budget airline as proposed under the renegade investors' alternative plan, he said.
Likewise, the frequent flyer division had been integral to Qantas' fortunes, and those airlines that had sold their loyalty schemes had discovered it had not been in the best interests of their shareholders.