The journalist Alastair Campbell coined a new word – Persilience – to describe a combination of perseverance and resilience. It is a badge he uses for leaders of merit and is also applicable to Alan Joseph Joyce, the chief executive of Qantas Airlines who has announced this week his plans to retire before the end of 2023. 

Joyce’s career has taken him from Ireland to Australia on a management odyssey through the airline industry. That career has been bookended with experiences at two of the longest surviving so-called flag carriers worldwide – Aer Lingus and Qantas. His experience and leadership is a salutary lesson in dynamic change management within an industry defined by its volatility and speed of change. 

No airs. No graces. No silver spoons. Alan Joyce grew up in Tallaght on the west side of Dublin. His parents brought in an income from cleaning and work in a tobacco factory that helped fund a third-level education for Alan and his three siblings. It was ambition and drive that took him into the state-owned national airline Aer Lingus at the age of 22 after being educated at the Dublin Institute of Technology and obtaining a Masters at Trinity College Dublin. The latter was for maths and physics where he qualified at the top of his class. Being so proficient in maths provided the tools to understand the fiendishly complicated route planning and scheduling tasks that exist in an airline. The physics will have helped him comprehend the multi million dollar assets that are dispatched by airlines each day to travel at over 500 miles per hour over 10,000 metres above ground.  

Joyce joined Aer Lingus in 1988. Unemployment and inflation were running at double-digit levels in that decade and jobs were sparse. At the state-owned carrier, he worked across a variety of departments and would have witnessed first-hand the advantages and disadvantages of working in a national carrier with a dominant domestic market share. He would also observe the firestorm that was being lit across the car park from Aer Lingus’ head office as the fledgling low-cost carrier Ryanair commenced operations and expanded through the 1990s before its IPO in 1997. 

After eight years inside Aer Lingus, and a full decade before that airline joined the Irish Stock Exchange, Joyce decided to move to literally the other side of the world where he joined Australian airline Ansett. Ansett was established in 1935 and went through various iterations with domestic and international services before being acquired by Air New Zealand in 2000. That year Joyce joined the larger Australian carrier Qantas, five years after its IPO, to undertake a similar role to that which he held in Ansett – network planning, schedules and strategy. 

In 2001 Ansett plunged into administration and in 2003 Joyce was appointed CEO of the Qantas subsidiary Jetstar, a low-cost airline created to compete with the newly established low-fare carrier Virgin Australia. An existing brand QantasLink was folded into Jetstar and domestic service commenced in 2004. 

After five years building Jetstar and making it the most profitable unit inside the group Joyce was appointed chief executive of Qantas. He inherited the national flag carrier amid a torrid economic environment courtesy of the global financial crisis and after a failed attempt by prior managers to launch a MBO (management buyout). He moved quickly to elevate efficiency as a key metric across the company. At that time, he was accused of ‘Jetstarising’ the whole airline by adopting tough cost-cutting measures. 

It was, however, a rational analysis of costs and revenues that motivated his ambition to reshape Qantas for the long term. His actions, including robust trade union negotiations, investment in new technology aircraft, and an open mind towards building cross-border airline alliances, echo the strategies employed by his peers in the early Aer Lingus days.

The Aer Lingus alumni

Eamonn Brennan (former DG of Eurocontrol); Stephen Kavanagh (CEO of Aerlingus 2015-2019); Dermot Mannion (CEO of Aer Lingus 2005-2009); Alan Joyce (CEO of Qantas 2008-2023); Christoph Mueller (CEO of Aer Lingus 2009-2015); Willie Walsh (CEO of Aer Lingus 2001-2005) and Pat Byrne (Chair of Cityjet). Photo: Eamonn Brennan

Willie Walsh as CEO of Aer Lingus, British Airways, and IAG adopted a similar management style. Conor McCarthy moved from Aer Lingus to Ryanair and subsequently advised on the development of AirAsia and Qantas itself. Stephen Kavanagh went on to become CEO of Aer Lingus. Each of them, like Joyce, understood the merits of high levels of efficiency and recognised that traditional flag carriers would not survive unless they adopted elements of the low-cost ethos pioneered by Ryanair and Southwest while leveraging the advantage in consumers’ minds of flag carrier status. 

Amid the endless volatility and chaos that defines the international airline industry, with external crises like the global financial crisis and Covid-19, and intense competition from state-backed carriers in the Gulf, China, and the wider Asian region, Joyce worked to engineer success for Qantas. When needed he was a street fighter, advocating for change in front of intense trade union and political opposition. He has not been shy to change management and make big strategic decisions. 

One of the earliest, in 2009, was to abandon a putative merger with British Airways. More radically, in 2013 Joyce led Qantas into a deep alliance with the Gulf carrier Emirates and moved its multi-decade “Kangaroo Route” stopover from Singapore to Dubai. In 2011, a dispute with unions over costs led to a full grounding of the Qantas fleet and the lockout of staff for two days. 

At a more tactical level, he competed with many carriers throughout his career, including low-cost carriers established in the Asian-Australian markets by Declan Ryan (Tiger Airways) and Conor McCarthy (AirAsia and its sister ships including long haul carrier AirAsia X). These three Irish aviation entrepreneurs have played a major role in spreading the effect of low-fare air travel across vast Australasian and Asian geographies.

Amid these strategic step changes Joyce also oversaw a complete overhaul of the Qantas Group fleet, including major changes in the type of aircraft and manufacturer operated. Under Joyce, Jetstar ordered 110 Airbus A320 aircraft in 2011 despite Qantas being historically a Boeing focussed operator. In 2008, Qantas started taking delivery of 12 Airbus A380 superjumbos to replace Boeing 747s. Twin jet Boeing 787s, Airbus A330s, and A350s have been introduced to modernise the widebody fleet with the latter being chosen for Project Sunrise, a pioneering plan to offer non-stop flights connecting Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane to ultra long haul destinations including London, New York, and Paris. The Qantas group now has a fleet of almost 300 aircraft with 125 operating under the core brand. For comparison, Aer Lingus has a fleet of 52. 

All of these enormous changes occurred over a period when Joyce fought cancer, became the first openly gay airline chief executive, and defied the prejudice and discrimination that holds back many raised in a working-class environment. He represents a cohort of Irish aviation executives that formed leadership skills and abilities in the domestic airline sector that have carried them to the top of major global airlines. Persilient and persilience indeed. 


Alan Joyce is just 56 and if interested he will have many opportunities offered in the world of airline management. For now, there are six months ahead to manage a transition to Vanessa Hudson who will become the most senior female chief executive in global aviation. 

Qantas continues to adjust and innovate as the post covid recovery in air travel swirls through its business. Joyce recently posted an AS$1.4 billion profit in the first half of the current year, after enduring Covid losses close to AS$7 billion. The financial trajectory is upwards, and he has chosen a healthy point of departure from a business he has led for the last 15 years.

Joe Gill is Director of Origination and Corporate Broking at Goodbody Stockbrokers.