Qantas’ chief has the hardest corporate gig in Australia and the airline’s latest restructure is another test of strength.

Alan Joyce, chief executive officer of Qantas Airways Ltd.

CORPORATE hero or union villain; who cares? When it comes to winning glossy magazine covers, Alan Joyce is without peer. The man is downright sultry, too.

Those with a more discerning eye for glamour may quibble – and there are indeed many shots to choose from in the Qantas chief executive super-modelling portfolio – but we personally favour the classic elegance of the finger-sur-le-chin pose, one of Joyce’s later works.

You know the one: shades of Rodin’s Descartes, though the subject’s visage seems less introspective, or rapt in the eternal musings perhaps, than fixed in the distance, full of wisdom and purpose.

Here is the quintessential portrait of the visionary leader, a distinct counterpoint to some of the earlier Joycean works with their playful dancing eyes and sensual pouts.

But where are Joyce’s contemporaries? Why do we not see Brambles chief executive Tom Gorman reclining seductively across a stack of Chep pallets? Or the bewitching Elmer Funke Kupper draped over a giant ASX logo?

APART from his exacting public relations schedule, Joyce has the hardest gig in corporate Australia.

As if the plethora of jurisdictions, regulations, a dozen unions, investors and other stakeholders, the astronomical fixed costs and incessant assaults by subsidised rivals were not enough, there is always a terrorist threat, a SARS epidemic or a volcano ash-cloud just around the corner.

Then there is the nagging fact that airlines simply don’t make good investments. To contend that Qantas must be delivering the sort of returns notched up by other top-100 companies, or otherwise it’s someone’s fault, is to ignore reality. In aviation you do a good job just to stay alive.

In its 100-year history the aviation industry has made a cumulative loss.

The numbers tell the Qantas story. The company was privatised and listed on the stock exchange in July 1995. Retail investors got their shares at $1.90 and institutions $2.

Yesterday, it was selling at $1.46. Yes, there have been many dividends in the interim, but you get the picture. Virgin Blue debuted in 2003 at $2.25 and now fetches 41¢.

As investments, airlines are marginal. As a trade, Qantas is a better proposition as there are typically a couple of bonanza years in the nine-year cycle in which the shares rally.

On the last run-up in 2007, Joyce’s predecessors did their darnedest to sell the airline to the now-defunct Allco Finance Group, Macquarie and themselves – and their $10 billion in ”covenant lite” debt – at $5.60 a share.

It was a top deal for shareholders, though exceptionally cheeky since Qantas is shouldered with broader responsibilities than just making shareholder returns and is a protected species like the banks.

As evinced by Joyce’s recent grounding of the fleet, the government will keep Qantas in the skies. It might even protect the equity holders as well as other creditors in the event of a collapse.

There is a yin for every yang. Qantas enjoys one of the most lucrative airline duopolies in the world in the Sydney-Melbourne route, but its international operations are unprofitable.

And so it was this week that another restructure was announced. Qantas would be split into four divisions: Qantas International, Qantas Domestic, Jetstar Group and Qantas Frequent Flyer.

But many of the old concerns will linger. Jetstar flies long-haul. Does it maintain its own planes? How are the costs and the revenues split? The net result may entail more management, more reporting lines and more divisions but not necessarily more profits.

Its great challenge remains the notoriously low industry returns.