The federal government may intervene in Qantas’s industrial relations storm after the airline said it would be forced to ground planes from next week because of work bans by engineers.
The dispute has already disrupted the travel plans of about 60,000 passengers and is shaping up as a ”disaster” for the tourism industry leading up to the Christmas holidays, according to hotel operators.
Tourism Minister Martin Ferguson said if the airline and unions failed to resolve the dispute, the government could approach the industrial umpire.
“There are options for the government to actually require the parties to resolve these issues under the umbrella of the Fair Work Australia Act,” Mr Ferguson said.
He also accused the head of the engineers’ union of being “un-Australian” for encouraging a boycott of Qantas.
“The sooner the parties get in a room and sort it out the better,” he said. “You can have a dispute with employers, but there is a responsibility on trade union leaders to never set out to damage Australian industry.”
More than 7000 passengers are facing disruption today when engineers in Sydney walk off the job for four hours from 4pm.
The chaos is set to worsen from Monday when Qantas says it will ground five aircraft – four Boeing 737s and one 767 – for a month, forcing the cancellation of 97 flights a week.
It said the cuts would mainly hit flights out of Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide. Passengers have been warned to check Qantas.com.au for up-to-date information.
”Regrettably, the industrial action from the licensed aircraft maintenance engineers union is now making it difficult to clear maintenance tasks in a timely fashion,” Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said. More aircraft groundings were likely if the dispute continued.
Unions representing pilots, maintenance engineers and ground handlers are in dispute with Qantas over enterprise bargaining deals. Jetstar flights are not affected, but its customers will be spared excess baggage charges tomorrow as Australian Services Union members pursue their claim.
Mr Joyce said the airline’s future was at stake. ”To give in to these union demands would guarantee a weaker Qantas, with a real risk to our long-term future and all our jobs,” he said.
He said the airline was willing to negotiate ”fair deals” but ”they will not involve me handing over ultimate power to three unions … Not only are
they seeking pay and conditions that would put us even further beyond our competitors”.
The pilot union’s lobbying of shareholders to overturn executive pay rises was a ”bully-boy tactic”, Mr Joyce said. He said he had taken a pay cut – though the accounts show his total remuneration package has leapt 71 per cent to $5 million.
The dispute was hurting a tourism industry that had already been battered by natural disasters and the high dollar, said Rodger Powell, managing director of Tourism Accommodation Australia. He said it would be a ”disaster” if the disruption dragged on until Christmas.
Pilot union vice-president Richard Woodward said the grounding of aircraft was a ploy, as nine planes were due to be retired soon, and pilots were not responsible for delaying flights.
Maintenance engineers’ union federal secretary Steve Purvinas said one of the grounded planes needed parts that were previously maintained in Australia, but now had to be sourced overseas. ”That is what happens when you send a large portion of your fleet overseas for maintenance,” he said.
Transport Workers Union national secretary Tony Sheldon said the government and opposition should speak out against big jumps in executive pay.
”This company has the money to both expand and keep decent paying jobs in this country, not just line their own pockets,” he said.