Emergency hearing into Qantas dispute, but no end in sight after total grounding

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce leaves a press conference after announcing all flights are grounded immediately due to pressure from the unions.
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce leaves a press conference after announcing all flights are grounded immediately due to pressure from the unions. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

There is no end in sight to the Qantas industrial dispute that has crippled Australia's aviation industry and left thousands of passengers stranded.

An emergency Fair Work Australia hearing into the Qantas dispute, convened in Melbourne, went until 1.30am AEDT today before adjourning until 2pm today, when union representatives will question Qantas executives about the timing of yesterday's mass grounding.

Before the adjournment, Qantas put three witnesses forward in a bid to demonstrate the gravity of their dispute with the Australian and International Pilots Association, Transport Workers Union and Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association.

Qantas executives Sue Bussell, Vanessa Hudson and Lyell Stambi spoke of damage caused by industrial action and the need for Qantas to take control. But they were not cross-examined because of the last-minute nature of today's forum.

"A really big impact"

Mr Strambi, group executive of airline operations, told the hearing that demands by engineers for Australian servicing of Airbus A380 aircraft were not economical.

Mr Strambi said Qantas's competitors "have access to cheaper labour" and that a lack of flexibility in servicing would limit "the ability of the business to adapt to new technology".

He told the Fair Work hearing that recent industrial action had cost Qantas about $68 million and pushed customers to competing airlines.

"We're seeing a really big impact in our forward bookings," he said. "It makes sense. If passengers can't be sure... They're less likely to book with us."

Mr Strambi put forward an internal risk assessment report as evidence, which outlined possible consequences and benefits of a staff lockout. He also described pilots as a group of people who like control and said a grounding and lockout would take power and control away from the pilots' union.

Drop in bookings

The second witness, Qantas's executive manager of commercial planning, Vanessa Hudson, said the airline had taken "numerous decisions to cancel flights and also re-time flights" because of industrial action. 

She said there had been a drop in the number of forward bookings for both domestic and international flights as a result of the campaign.

Ms Hudson said termination of industrial action "would remove the uncertainty". "It would restore reliability," she said.

The third witness for the hearing, Qantas general manager of industrial relations Sue Bussell, said engineers' demands to protect job security would "inhibit our ability to be competitive."

Federal government intervenes

The emergency hearing of the industrial umpire followed an application by the federal government under section 424 of the Fair Work Act.

It follows Qantas's shock announcement yesterday to ground its domestic and international flights immediately, and lock out engineers, pilots and other employees beginning tomorrow night.

Jetstar, QantasLink and Jet Connect are not affected by the Qantas action.

Qantas and a number of unions addressed the FWA hearing in Melbourne, which was videolinked to Canberra and Sydney.

- with AAP

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