By Byron Kaye
SYDNEY (Reuters) -Australia's Qantas Airways said its long-serving CEO would bring forward his retirement amid a publicity firestorm over an accusation of illegal ticket sales, signalling what the flagship carrier hopes is the end of a tumultuous period.
Alan Joyce, the company's boss for 15 years, had been scheduled to retire in November but said in a statement on Tuesday that he was leaving two months early due to "the focus on Qantas and events of the past" in the last few weeks, without elaborating.
Five days earlier, Australia's consumer watchdog sued Qantas alleging it sold tickets to some 8,000 flights in mid-2022 after they were cancelled, violating the country's consumer law. Qantas had issued two apologies, blaming tough industry conditions at the time.
The airline said Joyce's exit would help it "accelerate its renewal", giving the sense of a company bowing to public and political pressure after years of weathering it.
Over a decade and a half Joyce faced regular criticism for cutting jobs, including a 2011 decision to ground the entire Qantas fleet over an industrial dispute.
Even before the fares-for-no-flights scandal, Qantas was facing negative headlines over reports it campaigned successfully to have Australia's federal government stop rival Qatar Airways from running additional flights to Australia.
The airline also faced scrutiny over a decision to let nearly A$500 million ($323.00 million) of pandemic-era flight credits expire by the end of the year, which it reversed shortly after the regulator filed its lawsuit.
Joyce, who last month announced a record annual profit after three years of pandemic-driven losses, had long been popular with investors.
But the airline's share price had fallen 13% since the start of August amid questions over whether it had maximised profits at the expense of its longer-term reputation with customers. The shares were down slightly on Tuesday, in line with the broader market.
"Alan Joyce's Qantas legacy is ... a brand now synonymous with low pay, insecure work, illegal sackings and consumer rip offs," said Labor Senator Tony Sheldon, the former head of the Transport Workers Union, in a statement.
"The board has backed Joyce's behaviour at every step and must be held equally accountable," he added.
Qantas declined a request to interview its chairman, Richard Goyder. Speaking to the Australian Financial Review, Goyder said it was "a time for humility, and I think you'll see plenty of that as well".
Joyce's early retirement will see his replacement Vanessa Hudson become the first woman to lead the century-old airline from Wednesday.
($1 = 1.5480 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Byron Kaye in Sydney and Aishwarya Nair in Bengaluru; Editing by Jamie Freed)