Can Qantas recover?

How many more flight cancellations can we take? The year 2011 has been one major flight disruption after another: Queensland floods and cyclones, volcanic eruptions in Indonesia and Chile – the latter shutting down aviation in parts of southern Australia - and the threat of more in northern Europe, earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan. And then there was the grounding of Tiger Airways over safety issues.

The weekend’s disruption was the latest in a series of man-made crises, which started just on a year ago with an engine malfunction that almost brought down a Qantas A380.

The decision by Qantas management on Saturday to ground the airline’s global operations rather than face months more industrial disruption by unions has divided the country.

Whether they have shares in it or not, Australians have an opinion of the national carrier and demand that it serves their interests, even though only a small minority of people still use it, internationally at least.

The national government faces criticism for allowing the crisis to balloon. Qantas faces criticism for giving the travelling public no warning of its decision to ground the airline.

In fact, the airline will have been grounded for less than two days when its domestic and international schedule is restarted. But, subjectively, this feels like almost as big a crisis as the 1989 pilots’ strike, which shut down the entire Australian air travel industry. This time, half of the industry is still flying.

However, there’s little doubt in my mind that Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce has further damaged the Qantas brand in a practical way, with many travellers now vowing not to use the airline because of its decision to go ahead with a mass stranding of passengers to achieve an industrial objective.

Though it doesn’t want to talk about it, Virgin Australia is standing by to catch the falling Qantas market share. With Sir Richard Branson’s knack of being in the right place at the right time, his Australian creation will be a major beneficiary, both domestically and internationally.

On the other hand, it could take Qantas months or years to rebuild public trust, which was already damaged by years of what the public perceived to be uneven customer service in the air and on the ground – an affliction suffered by most full-service legacy carriers.

Apart from its corporate business travel contracts, the glue holding Qantas’s customer base together, it could be argued, is little more than its increasingly stingy frequent flyer program, which keeps changing its rules to reduce its liability and increasing the cash cost of formerly “free” flight redemptions.

Will the events of the past two days influence your choice of airline for a trip you have planned in the next year? Do you agree with Joyce’s contention that he had no choice but to ground Qantas to bring the confrontation with unions to a head to secure the airline’s long-term future?