>> Interactive map: Cancelled flights and affected passengers
QANTAS planes could be back flying tonight after the industrial relations umpire, Fair Work Australia, ruled at 2.08am today that the dispute between the airline and the unions should be terminated.
The decision, which came after a marathon Fair Work Australia hearing, will provide belated relief to thousands of stranded international and domestic passengers. It came just as a furious federal government was considering taking matters into its own hand by using special powers under the Fair Work Act to terminate the dispute itself.
The verdict gives the warring parties 21 days to resolve their dispute and reach an agreement that would be binding. If they fail to do so, there will be compulsory arbitration.
"This decision provides certainty for passengers," Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said in statement.
The decision of Fair Work Australia means he has failed, comprehensively failed
"We will be getting our aircraft back up in the air as soon as we possibly can."
Before the hearing finished, Qantas signalled it would not be able to put flights on until at least midday today. It would make a decision about afternoon flights this morning.
Immediately after the verdict was handed down, Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten emerged from the hearing room to say he was pleased that "after 12 long hours, Fair Work Australia has upheld the application of the Gillard Government.
"We are very conscious that there are tens of thousands of travellers stranded throughout Australia and the rest of the world.
"The Australian economy has been put at risk of great damage, [notably] the mining and tourism sectors.
"Common sense has been restored. We trust that Qantas and the unions will get flying as soon as they can."
ACTU national secretary Jeff Lawrence said unions would work with the airline to get planes flying again as soon as possible.
"We will work with the company, all the unions and all the employees will do that, to make sure that the Australian travelling public is not inconvenienced for one minute longer than necessary," he said.
"It’s unfortunate that it’s taken the intervention of the federal government to force Qantas to negotiate about these issues about job security and to end the lockout."
Mr Lawrence insisted Mr Joyce had failed in his bid to lock out its workforce, ground the fleet and eliminate the unions’ claims for job security.
"The decision of Fair Work Australia means he has failed, comprehensively failed," he said.
Transport Workers Union (TWU) national secretary Tony Sheldon said: "The real challenge here is that the Australian government fight really hard for Australian jobs.
"We’ll negotiate ... but quite clearly the government has to stand up and defend Australian jobs."
Mr Sheldon predicted that Fair Work Australia’s decision would be met with mixed emotions.
"The first reactions will be relief that this despicable act has been stopped by the company, but also grave concerns about their job security and their jobs being exported to Asia when this is supposed to be a company that is obliged by legislation to remain and operate in this country," he said.
"The government has stepped in, it’s the first to my knowledge in the history of this country and of course it means that new laws, new approaches need to be instigated against this despicable company that will do anything to crush Australian jobs and send them overseas."
The Qantas share price was expected to be hit hard when markets opened this morning. The verdict may limit the damage.
The crisis may be resolved but has left in its wake bitter relations between Qantas and the government, which feels the airline over-reacted when it had less drastic options at its disposal.
The government was furious at the social dislocation, economic damage and political embarrassment caused by the wildcat action, which threw the lives of tens of thousands of travellers into chaos and shamed Australia when it was hosting 54 nations at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth.
Fair Work Australia began an emergency hearing on Saturday night after the government intervened under the Act and applied for the dispute to be terminated.
Mr Joyce, said he, too, wanted the dispute terminated. If Fair Work Australia had chosen instead to suspend the dispute, Mr Joyce said he would have kept the fleet grounded because a suspension would not have ended end the unrest and uncertainty.
Where a termination forces an end within 21 days, a suspension would have just delayed the dispute for 90 days, with no forced resolution.
The government's fury was stoked by revelations the wildcat action had been planned for some time. One document tabled to the hearing, which dealt with the safety aspects of the grounding, was dated October 20.
The Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, accused the government of causing unnecessary duress by not immediately invoking special powers under section 431 of the Act, which would have terminated the dispute immediately without involving Fair Work Australia.
Mr Joyce, said he believed the airline's relationship with the federal government would remain intact, despite the obvious strain.
"My priority is to do what is right for Qantas," he told the Herald yesterday.
"'The government and ourselves, and the opposition and ourselves, have a great working relationship. I believe that will continue – it is in everyone's interests."
Mr Joyce dismissed claims that Qantas had prepared for the grounding by booking hotels and seats on other airlines well in advance of Saturday.
He admitted that Qantas had "weeks of planning on a range of different scenarios" in the lead up to the grounding but said the board did not push the button until Saturday morning.
"We did not book hotels until the Saturday," he said. "We felt things were getting worse, not better, and the only alternative was to use the provisions of Fair Work Australia for us to take our own industrial action and that was to lock out the union members who were taking this action and force rapid negotiations."
Prior to the verdict, Mr Abbott said: "The government should terminate the bargaining period now. People are sitting in airport terminals because the Prime Minister has been sitting on her hands."
The Opposition leader, who is keen to avoid an internal political row over industrial relations policy, stressed there were sufficient powers under existing laws to end the dispute.
"This is not a policy problem, this is a competency problem on the part of the Government," he said. The dispute had "only got to this stage because of the Prime Minister".
Mr Joyce said he had talked to Qantas's largest shareholders after deciding to ground the fleet and they had been "very supportive of this".
"They felt that they didn't want us to die a death .. and we needed to get on and solve the issue," he said.
with Jessica Wright