An act of high-stakes brinksmanship by has set the stage for the near-term resolution of a protracted labor conflict that has been clouding the airline’s future.
Following two days of emergency meetings, Fair Work Australia (FWA)–the country’s top labor relations body–has disallowed further strikes and set a deadline for talks to end the airline’s contract dispute with three of its major unions.
The government asked FWA to step in after Qantas’s surprise Oct. 29 announcement that it would lock out members of these unions and ground its mainline fleet in response to strikes and other industrial action.
The FWA’s ruling is essentially a win for Qantas, which succeeded in forcing the government to intervene. However, unions and many lawmakers claim the Qantas moves were an overreaction, noting that strikes had so far been limited in scope. The grounding caused hundreds of flight cancellations, stranding passengers around Qantas’s global network. The carrier began resuming flights on Oct. 31, although it was expected to take up to two days to restore full operations.
FWA was widely expected to halt the strikes and the lockout, but the main question was whether it would opt for termination or suspension of the industrial action. The unions were pushing for suspension, which would have meant a temporary cessation of strikes for three to four months. Meanwhile, Qantas wanted the strikes terminated, triggering a much shorter mediation period followed by binding arbitration if no deal is reached. The mediation period is 21 days, with another 21-day extension if progress is being made.
The airline argued that suspension would only postpone, rather than solve, its labor impasse, and would not provide enough certainty for it to return its fleet to the air. The federal government also recommended termination, rather than suspension.
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce announced on Oct. 29 that the airline would lock out engineers, baggage handlers and international pilots from 8 p.m. on Oct. 31. Contract talks with these three groups had reached an impasse, but only the engineers and baggage handlers have held sporadic strikes. Joyce says he had to force the issue because industrial action threatened the airline with “death by a thousand cuts.”
The carrier opted to cancel mainline flights with immediate effect, in advance of the lockout deadline. Qantas says the grounding of its 108 aircraft was necessary because the workers subject to the lockout are essential to the airline’s operation.
All mainline domestic and international flights were affected, but not flights by subsidiaries Jetstar and QantasLink or flights to New Zealand operated by JetConnect.
Passengers were stranded at Qantas hub airports in Australia and overseas. By the afternoon of Oct. 30, there were 447 flights canceled, affecting more than 68,000 travelers, Qantas says.
After resuming service, Qantas added supplemental flights to its regular schedule to help reduce the backlog. Rival carriers–most notably–added capacity in Australian markets to make up for the shortfall caused by the Qantas grounding. Many airlines also offered discounted fares to stranded Qantas passengers.