Virgin Australia walks back plans to acknowledge veterans on flights following backlash

  • Less than 24 hours after announcement, airline says it will consult veterans’ organisations over the plans

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 November, 2018, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 05 November, 2018, 9:35pm

Virgin Airlines has backed-tracked on a plan to give Australian veterans a US-style public acknowledgement on their flights and priority when boarding, amid an outcry from veterans themselves.

Less than 24 hours after the announcement, Virgin released a statement saying it would now consult veterans’ organisations over the plans and “be respectful” if the process found public recognition was inappropriate.

The Virgin proposal was part of a campaign being driven by media giant News Corp Australia – and backed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Using the hashtag #ThanksForServing, NewsCorp said it was fostering “a movement to acknowledge the service of veterans, past and present, and the sacrifice of their families”.

But it immediately drew fire from veterans and groups representing them as out of touch with Australian values.

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Neil James, the head of the Australian Defence Association, called the move “tokenistic” and said it was a manifestation of American culture that was unlikely to translate well in Australia.

“The first problem is that there’s other forms of service to the community … like policemen and ambos, and so would you actually start a queue of such announcements? That’s a real worry,” he told ABC Radio Melbourne.

James said publicly thanking veterans might be damaging to their health in some cases.

“There’s a fine line between embarrassing them and thanking them and, in some cases, where they’re suffering a psychological illness, effusively thanking them in public might not necessarily help them,” he said.

Rodger Shanahan, a veteran who now works as a research fellow at the Lowy Institute, accused the government and organisations of using veterans for branding.

He said Australia was in danger of reaching “peak veteran” as governments, media and business all tried to capitalise.

“It seems to be all about branding, and veterans are the brand du jour,” he said. “I think they should dial it down a little.”

By Tuesday afternoon, Virgin Australia chief executive John Borghetti had issued a statement saying the company would pause to consult.

“We are very mindful of the response that our announcement about recognising people who have served in defence has had today, and it was a gesture genuinely done to pay respects to those who have served our country,” he said.

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“Over the coming months, we will be working consultatively with community groups and our own team members who have served in defence to determine the best way forward.

“If this consultative process determines that public acknowledgement of their service through optional priority boarding is not appropriate, then we will certainly be respectful of that.”

His statement did not mention the in-flight announcement plans, but a spokeswoman said they would also be part of the consultations.

Australia’s veterans affairs minister, Darren Chester, welcomed the Virgin announcement on Sunday, but acknowledged many veterans would sooner embrace discounted airfares.

“Australians, by nature, tend to keep their light under a bushel,” Chester said. “Some would be happy to get on the plane without anyone knowing they are there.”