By Martin Kelly

STICKS and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me. Or as Eric Idle from Monty Python said: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will make me go into a corner and cry by myself for hours.”

In retrospect, that should have been the approach from Webjet boss David Clarke, who took offence at the semantics of a Flight Centre press release, igniting a war of words that may yet end up in the courts.

Clarke was offended by the assertion from Flight Centre that is the “entrenched” Number One travel agency website based on Hitwise statistics for the six months to December 31.

He also didn’t like Flight Centre claiming that “no online travel retailer in the Australian market currently generates significant profit.”

Irked, Clarke fired off a riposte that challenged Flight Centre to start talking online financials before making such claims on the basis that Webjet needs to reassure its shareholders that online travel retail is profitable.

Webjet made $924,524 after tax profit for the period in question, roughly half of it from service fees, a proportion which is now closer to 60 per cent. Flight Centre does not reveal its online results.

And that should have been the end of it – until a report emerged that Webjet had complained to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission about the claim.

It now appears that the story was wrong – Webjet has made so such complaint – but Flight Centre boss Graham Turner reacted with another press release.

“The simple fact is that has now won the 2004 and 2005 awards based on research from independent web monitor Hitwise,” he said.

“Webjet’s criticism is particularly puzzling when you consider that it continues to promote its own success in the Hitwise rankings for the June quarter last year.”

Turner also took a swipe at Webjet’s accounting.

“On the issue of profitability in the online travel agency sector, Flight Centre is fundamentally opposed to the practice of aggressively issuing shares and options in return for products and services – which would usually be considered basic operating expenses – received from third parties.

“Webjet seems to minimise expenses in this manner. Flight Centre believes this is undesirable and potentially misleading to investors as it can cloud the true underlying profitability of the company doing it.”

Not surprisingly, Clarke took great offence, called his lawyers and fired off a confidential letter to Flight Centre, which it was considering as this story went to press.

“We view the Flight Centre comments with the utmost seriousness. It impugns the integrity of Webjet and its directors … and is demonstrable nonsense.”

As is this whole fracas, all over a word that now seems to sum up the whole bizarre situation, created out of nothing – entrenched.


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