SYDNEY, Australia — Australian military veterans recoiled at a government-backed policy that would allow them to board some commercial airlines ahead of other passengers, calling the move a political stunt that smacked of tokenism.
The government announced over the weekend that Virgin Australia would offer priority boarding to veterans and also make in-flight announcements to acknowledge their service, part of a broader push to give veterans, who use a new national ID card, discounts at supermarkets and department stores.
Critics, including many veterans, said the policy was at odds with Australia’s egalitarian national ethos. The notion of a veteran singling himself or herself out for special treatment, some critics said, was distinctly un-Australian. Others described it as something even worse: an Americanism.
“It’s a very American thing to do. We’re not quite as loud or noisy as that,” said Mike Carlton, the author of several books about Australia’s military history. “Australians are a little more subtle.”
“It’s just not in our nature to do stuff like that. Almost any veteran I can think of would be hideously embarrassed by being singled out like that,” Mr. Carlton added. “I’ve interviewed a lot of them for my books: World War II vets, vets from the Burma-Siam railway. They would hate the notoriety of being singled out like that.”
On Twitter, some veterans saw the move as a way to score votes for the Liberal government led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Some critics said the policy could have a detrimental effect on veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Some people suffering psychological illnesses don’t like attention drawn to them,” Neil James, the executive director of the Australian Defense Association told ABC Radio.
At least three American carriers offer some priorities or upgrades to United States military personnel, particularly those actively serving and traveling in uniform.
American Airlines automatically offers upgrades to troops traveling in uniform, United Airlines offers service members discounted tickets, and JetBlue offers discounts and priority boarding.
Members of veterans organizations can sometimes receive discounts when booking tickets, but veterans in the United States do not typically receive priority boarding.
Virgin said it was joining a campaign spearheaded by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. newspapers, and backed by the government, to honor the country’s servicemen and women in the lead up to the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, the conclusion of World War I.
The announcement also comes as the federal government approved a 500 million Australian dollar, or about $360 million, upgrade of the national War Memorial, a sizable investment at a time when other national institutions are facing budget cuts.
The memorial’s director, Brendan Nelson, who has also served as defense minister, said troops who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq should have a greater dedicated space to highlight their experiences of war.
On Monday, Qantas, the national carrier, said it would not provide veterans with priority seats.
“We’re conscious that 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,” Qantas said in a statement.
Hours later, Virgin Australia seemed to suggest it was reversing its decision.
In three tweets, the carrier said it was “very mindful” of the response to its announcement, and said it was a gesture “genuinely done to pay respects to those who have served our country.”
The airline said it might have been hasty in announcing the proposal, adding that it would consult veterans, including those who work for Virgin, to “determine the best way forward.”
“If this process determines that public acknowledgment of their service through optional priority boarding or any announcement is not appropriate, then we will certainly be respectful of that,” the airline said on Twitter.