Qantas row leaves global leaders stuck
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said a Qantas Airways dispute was "not at all" embarrassing for her government after global leaders attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting this weekend were left without flights home.
Qantas, Australia's biggest airline, yesterday grounded most of its domestic and international fleet effective immediately as escalating industrial action by three of its unions prompted a slump in bookings. Ms Gillard was speaking at a meeting in Perth.
Qantas was to fly home 17 government leaders today after the Commonwealth summit in the west coast city of Perth ended. But the airline grounded its global fleet indefinitely yesterday, imposing an employee lockout after weeks of disruptive strikes, and the Australian government sought emergency arbitration.
At least 60 flights were in the air and continued to their destinations, but a taxiing flight stopped on the runway, according to one flier.
Booked passengers were being rescheduled at Qantas's expense, chief executive Alan Joyce said.
When the grounding was announced, 36 international and 28 domestic Australian flights were in the air, said a Qantas spokeswoman, who declined to be named citing company policy.
She could not confirm a report that 13,305 passengers were booked to fly Qantas international flights within 24 hours of the grounding.
Bookings had already collapsed after unions warned travellers to book with other airlines through the busy Christmas-New Year period. Mr Joyce told a news conference in Sydney that the unions' actions have caused a crisis for Qantas.
"They are trashing our strategy and our brand," Mr Joyce said. "They are deliberately destabilising the company and there is no end in sight."
Union leaders criticised the action as extreme. Qantas is the world's 10th largest airline and among the most profitable, but its unions worry a recent restructuring announcement would be a means to move some of Qantas's 35,000 jobs overseas.
The grounding of the largest of Australia's four national domestic airlines will take a major economic toll and could disrupt the national parliament, due to resume in Canberra on Tuesday after a two-week recess. Qantas's budget subsidiary Jetstar continues to fly.
The government has called an emergency arbitration court hearing to rule on the strike action and the airline's response.
Ms Gillard said her centre-left government, which is affiliated with the trade union movement, had "taken a rare decision" to call an emergency arbitration court hearing to terminate the strike action.
"I believe it is warranted in the circumstances we now face with Qantas. This industrial dispute could have implications for our national economy," she said.