Virgin Australia has responded to the backlash against its plan to honor Australian war veterans on its flights.
The airline had said military veterans would get priority boarding, and their presence would be publicly acknowledged during in-flight announcements, in a move similar to what is seen in the United States. But it faced widespread criticism, including from some veterans, who called the decision an “embarrassment.”
“We are very mindful of the response that our announcement about recognizing people who have served in defense has had today, and it was a gesture genuinely done to pay respects to those who have served our country,” Virgin Australia Group chief executive John Borghetti said Monday.
“Over the coming months, we will be working consultatively with community groups and our own team members who have served in defense to determine the best way forward. If this consultative process determines that public acknowledgment of their service through optional priority boarding is not appropriate, then we will certainly be respectful of that.”
That statement represented a drastic back down from Virgin’s original announcement.
“We acknowledge the important contribution veterans have made to keeping our country safe and the role they play in our community,” Virgin Australia chief executive officer John Borghetti told Brisbane’s Sunday Mail yesterday.
“Once the veterans have their cards and lapel pins, they will simply need to present them during the boarding process to be given priority boarding and be recognized on board.”
American airlines have long asked passengers to stand and applaud service men and women on flights and thank them for their service. Many carriers also offer discounts on prices and special deals on baggage.
Rival airline Qantas said it would not be following Virgin’s lead.
“We carry a lot of exceptional people every day, including veterans, police, paramedics, nurses, firefighters and others, and so we find it difficult to single out a particular group as part of the boarding process,” it said.
The federal government this week announced a discount card for returned servicemen and women, along with a jobs program to connect veterans with suitable employers.
Defense Industry Minister Steven Ciobo supported Virgin’s idea, saying it was “tremendous” for the airline to salute the service of soldiers.
“If we can get through not just airlines, but if we can do this across the board, I think that is part of reinforcing respect in the Australian community for these men and women,” Ciobo told Sky News.
But not everyone was as thrilled as Ciobo.
Prominent veteran Catherine McGregor wrote that she “would not dream of walking on to an aircraft ahead of the other passengers as a veteran” and the idea was simply “more nationalist crap.”
“Can’t imagine too many people I served with doing this either. Spend more on suicide prevention and health support. Faux American bollocks,” she wrote.
Ray Martin, a retired Army officer, said veterans “don’t need lapels or gestures.”
“We’re the kind of people who stand back for others. We don’t need priority in a line to board a plane.”
Another veteran, Rodger Shanahan, said he had been “inundated with messages from the veterans community asking what the hell is going on with this.”
“Friggin’ embarrassment personified. Anzac Day is sufficient thanks,” he said.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but surely there are far better, more suitable ways of honoring and thanking our war veterans? This all feels like one big ad for Virgin Australia,” Leo James commented.
“Honouring veterans if they choose to fly Virgin Australia? Sounds like commercializing Australians service personnel to me. Most I’ve met and know are pretty humble, they don’t want a fuss,” said Andrew Heslop.
“Are we also going to thank paramedics, nurses, doctors, teachers, social workers — those who also serve society? It elevates one group of people above others,” Collette Snowdon tweeted.
“Where does it end? American nonsense. Will not fly Virgin if this goes ahead.”