SYDNEY, (AFP) – Australian flag carrier Qantas on Saturday took the drastic step of grounding its entire fleet indefinitely in an escalating industrial dispute, a move unions called “a stunning overreaction”.
The airline, which has been hit by a series of strikes, said all employees involved in the action would be locked out from Monday evening without pay and flights grounded from 0600 GMT on Saturday.
“We have decided to ground the Qantas international and domestic fleets immediately,” chief executive Alan Joyce said.
The airline said pilots, engineers and baggage, ground and catering staff were essential to Qantas operations and their lockout made it necessary to take all planes out of service.
“Aircraft currently in the air will complete the sectors they are operating. However, there will be no further Qantas domestic departures or international departures anywhere in the world,” it said.
The Australian government said it was “very concerned” by the dramatic development and accused the airline of a “breach of faith” by failing to give it advance notice.
“I think it is certainly a breach of faith with the government, the fact that there was no advanced notice of this action being taken by Qantas,” said Transport Minister Anthony Albanese.
“I indicated that very clearly to Mr Joyce this afternoon.”
Canberra can intervene in industrial disputes if the Australian economy or the welfare of its population is deemed to to be under threat and Albanese said he was seeking urgent action from the industrial regulator.
Fair Work Australia will hold a hearing on the issue at 1100 GMT Saturday in Melbourne.
Months of strikes by baggage handlers, engineers and pilots have been costing Qantas Aus$15 million (US$16 million) per week, with the total financial impact so far hitting Aus$68 million.
The embattled company’s shock decision to ground all aircraft will affect 108 planes at 22 airports, it said.
“The airline will be grounded as long as it takes to reach a conclusion on this,” said Joyce in a hastily called press conference, adding that he could not take “the easy way out” and agree to union demands.
“That would destroy Qantas in the long term,” he said.
“I’m actually taking the bold decision, an unbelievable decision, a very hard decision, to ground this airline.”
Unions have been protesting against pay and restructuring plans and the decision to ground the planes came a day after a heated annual general meeting.
At the meeting, Qantas management came under fire for plans to refocus the airline on Asia which will see it launch two new airlines and axe 1,000 jobs.
Joyce was accused of running the carrier into the ground while reaping massive personal rewards.
Engineering union chief Steve Purvinas had warned that protests could stretch until mid-2012 while ground staff leader Tony Sheldon threatened crippling 48-hour strikes.
Australian pilots Saturday said Qantas was “holding a knife to the nation’s throat” and called for Joyce to be sacked immediately.
“This is a stunning overreaction. It is straight-up blackmail,” said Australian and International Pilots Association vice-president Richard Woodward.
“This is a grave and serious situation and the board should move to sack Mr Joyce immediately.”
Joyce blasted the unions for running “utterly destructive industrial campaigns against Qantas and our customers, hurting all our employees and undermining Australian business”.
“They are trashing our strategy and our brand,” he said, adding that company research showed an alarming increase in people who intend not to fly with Qantas.
“They (the union) talk about job security, but the unions are on a path that would diminish the job security of their own members,” said Joyce.
“Customers are now fleeing from us.”
The airline will offer hotel accommodation and alternative flights to those who are mid-journey and cannot get home because of the grounding.