Conflict & Justice

Australian air travel in chaos as Qantas standoff drags on (VIDEO)


Qantas aircraft sit parked on the tarmac at Hong Kong's international airport on October 30, 2011. Australian flag carrier Qantas on October 29 took the drastic step of grounding its entire fleet indefinitely in an escalating industrial dispute that sparked travel chaos for passengers around the world.


Ed Jones

SYDNEY, Australia — The sound of silence over Sydney skies is deafening.

Qantas' grounding of its entire fleet has stunned the nation, pushing even the rare and tragic news of three Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan off the front pages.

(GlobalPost reports: Qantas grounds its entire fleet, stranding passengers worldwide (VIDEO)

Bewildered passengers — many of whom have paid more to travel with an airline considered the world's safest (and Australia's most reliable) — were still turning up to airports Sunday to catch their flights, unaware of the airline's union-busting move.

Qantas has said that months of industrial action by three unions representing engineers, pilots and ground staff, which it claims was costing the company $16 million a week, prompted its extraordinary action late Friday.

The BBC reports that the industrial dispute stems from the announcement of plans in August to restructure and move some operations to Asia — including around 1,000 jobs.

Qantas chief Alan Joyce, meantime, told a press conference Saturday that Qantas could not meet the “impossible demands” of the unions, who a day earlier had threatened a 48-hour strike.

Joyce has said the airline will lock out employees involved in strike action from at 8 p.m. local time Monday. His decision to ground the Qantas fleet came as Qantas shareholders approved his own salary of $5 million.

He said the unions were "deliberately destabilizing” the company and that the airline would lock out employees involved in strike action.

We are locking out until the unions withdraw their extreme claim and reach agreement with us. They are trashing our strategy and our brand. This course of action has been forced upon us ... by the actions of three unions. The ball is in their court. They have to decide how badly they want to hurt Qantas.

Joyce had already said that refunds would be provided to passengers who chose to cancel flights.

However, the carrier's action has left an estimated 80,000 passengers in in London, New York, Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong, Frankfurt and countless other cities in limbo.

Australian media outlets have been broadcasting interviews with irate passengers all day — including parents with small children, business travelers, and passengers on mercy dashes home to see sick relatives — with most of them publicly vowing never to fly with Qantas again.

Qantas' main domestic competitor, Virgin Australia, said Sunday it would offer stranded Qantas passengers discounted seats where possible, and was considering adding extra flights to its schedule, Australia's ABC News reported.

Australian air travel has been plunged into chaos, needless to say.

Prime ministers visiting Australia for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), attended by Queen Elizabeth, face being stranded in Perth because of the snap grounding of the Qantas fleet, The Sydney Morning Herald reports. At least 17 delegations were booked to fly on Qantas.  

The government, meantime, claims it was given no advance warning of the Qantas action. Transport Minister Anthony Albanese reportedly said the government was extremely concerned about the future of Qantas, and would make an "urgent application" to the industrial court Fair Work Australia — Australia's official workplace arbitor — to terminate all industrial action at Qantas.

Meanwhile, the grounding will send likely ripples through the Australian sharemarket on Monday, and may substantially hit the tourism and freight sectors, AMP chief economist Shane Oliver told AAP.

Qantas boasts a 65 percent share of Australia's domestic market.

Meanwhile, the Sun Herald newspaper has reported that Joyce had warned at an annual general meeting that half of Qantas would "be gone" within a year if unions pursued their industrial campaign into 2012.

He said the action risked at least 17,000 jobs, or almost half the Qantas workforce.