Stranded Qantas passengers await labour ruling

By @ibtimes on

Tens of thousands of stranded Qantas Airways passengers are pinning their hopes on a government-appointed tribunal on Sunday ordering an end to the industrial action that grounded the Australian national carrier's entire fleet.

Qantas said on Sunday it had cancelled 447 flights affecting more than 68,000 passengers since grounding more than 100 aircraft around the world on Saturday.

The airline is seeking to bring to a head a prolonged and increasingly bitter battle with its unions over pay, working conditions and plans to set up two new airlines in Asia.

Qantas plans to cut 1,000 jobs and order $9 billion (5 billion pounds) of new Airbus aircraft as part of a makeover to salvage its loss-making international business.

The marked escalation in the dispute angered the government and came as an embarrassment for Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who was hosting a summit of Commonwealth leaders in the western city of Perth, 17 of them booked to fly out on Sunday with Qantas.

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce has estimated the bold decision, an unbelievable decision would cost the company A$20 million (13.3 million pounds) a day. He said the special labour tribunal would have to terminate all industrial action before the airline could resume flying.

We're hoping a determination is made today and that will give us certainty about what we can do and start planning to get the airline back in the air, Joyce told Australia's Sky News on Sunday.

Joyce indicated Qantas could be flying again on Monday. if the Fair Work Australia tribunal ordered the termination of industrial action on Sunday.

Qantas and the unions would then have 21 days to negotiate a settlement before binding arbitration would be imposed. The hearing begins at 3 a.m. British time.

ANGRY RESPONSES

The lockout is the latest in a rising tide of industrial unrest in Australia as unions increase pressure for a greater share of profits amid tight labour markets and a boom in resource prices.

It threatens to become the most significant disruption to Australian aviation since a dispute in 1989 that lasted for six months and had a significant impact on tourism and other businesses. Industrial action by engineers cost Qantas around A$130 million in 2008.

Qantas faced angry shareholders and workers at a shareholders' meeting on Friday when the company said the labour dispute since September had caused a dive in forward bookings and was costing it A$15 million a week.

The shareholders backed hefty pay rises to senior Qantas executives, including a A$5 million package for Joyce.

The action sparked an angry response from Australia's Transport Minister Anthony Albanese on Saturday.

I'm extremely disappointed. What's more, I indicated very clearly to Mr Joyce that I was disturbed by the fact that we've had a number of discussions and at no stage has Mr Joyce indicated to me that this was an action under consideration, he said.

Tony Sheldon of the Transport Workers Union said the lockout was cynical and pre-planned.

It's a company strategy that shareholders should have been told about, that the Australian community should have been told about, not ambushed in the dead of night, he said.

The Australian and International Pilots Association (AIPA) was flabbergasted at the move to ground the fleet, describing it as brinkmanship in the extreme.

Alan Joyce is holding a knife to the nation's throat, said Richard Woodward, vice-president of AIPA.

MASSIVE DISRUPTIONS

Qantas check-in desks across Australia were empty on Sunday morning as customers scrambled for alternative travel arrangements. The airline usually flies more than 60,000 people a day.

Australian rival Virgin Blue said it was adding an extra 3,000 seats on its domestic network on Sunday to assist Qantas passengers.

Qantas's decision left many passengers venting their anger after they were stranded in 22 cities.

To resolve this at the expense of paying customers on one of the biggest flying days in Australia is quite frankly ... bizarre, unwarranted and unfair to the loyal customers that Australia has, a businessman, who gave his name only as Barry, told Sky TV at Melbourne airport.

This weekend is one of Australia's busiest for travel, with tens of thousands travelling to the hugely popular Melbourne Cup horse race on Tuesday, dubbed the race that stops the nation.

Qantas's Facebook page was inundated with angry passengers. Stranded in Sydney Airport ... because QANTAS are useless idiots, wrote Lyn Haddon.

At London's Heathrow Airport, passengers stood in long queues looking up at departure boards showing cancelled flights.

(I'm) not very happy because it was the holiday of a lifetime for us and it cost us a lot of money, British passenger Steve Johnson said.

Shares in the airline have fallen almost 40 percent this year, underperforming the 8 percent fall in the benchmark index.

(Additional reporting by Narayanan Somasundaram and Ed Davies in SYDNEY, Rebekah Kebede in PERTH, James Grubel in CANBERRA, Kevin Lim in SINGAPORE; Editing by Paul Tait)

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