The rhetoric in the Qantas pilots dispute today is more bitter than anything heard in airline circles since the infamous pilot strike of 1989.

But it is not otherwise similar to that brawl, which provoked the strongest anti-union reaction from a Labor government since Ben Chifley used troops to break a coal miners strike in July 1949.

Instead, this brawl, whether it leads to a Qantas pilot strike or not, is one that is set to force Canberra to deal with the “I-now-call-Singapore-home” effect in which Qantas is shifting its flying and its resources offshore, in contravention of the purpose of the Qantas Sale Act, and preparing to import foreign pilots to undercut Australian pilot pay.

The business plan of  the current Qantas management, to deAustralianise Qantas, and continue to sacrifice “costly”  legacy flight and maintenance arrangements through outsourcing , is something the Gillard government and Abbott opposition haven’t been prepared to contemplate.

But in this sense, that of forcing itself into the political arena, it is an incredibly risky dispute for Qantas and the pilots to engage in.

Both sides know this. They have their lobbyists on the ground in Canberra at this moment.

As far as strike action goes, even if there is an overwhelming vote for protected action on the floor at off-duty pilot meetings tomorrow and on Monday,  a formal ballot will be required of all pilots, and any consequent disruption to Qantas flights would be weeks away.  (Easter sounds good.)

The reality for Qantas has already been signalled by CEO Alan Joyce. The international business is unsustainable, and in need of serious investment. Less clearly signalled was the culpability of his management in further running the product up against the wall by failing to correct (so far) the disastrous fleet planning errors by his predecessors,  and removing the engine shop that actually kept the aged Rolls-Royce engines reliable on its clapped out 747 fleet, followed by a cluster of failures that has damaged customer confidence in the carrier.

As for the world headline-grabbing A380 incident, Qantas under Joyce has learnt nothing about avoiding self harm, embracing a power-by-the-hour deal for those Rolls-Royce engines in which it found itself  left ignorant of issues that were known to the manufacturer.

Internationally, Qantas is being destroyed by better product being flown more directly to more destinations, and has tried to find an answer across its overseas and domestic networks by transferring assets to a Jetstar product that its higher-yielding customers detest.

These management failings give the pilots nowhere to go other than to take their skills and experience to Emirates, Cathay Pacific or Singapore Airlines, all of whom are carving up Qantas up in terms of product and schedule.

At yesterday’s meetings between the Australian and International Pilots Association and Qantas management, including  Oldmeadow Consulting ((a firm associated in the union’s mind with the supplying of strike breakers) both sides dug in deeply.

Neither side agreed on how much a proposed pilot pay and productivity deal from the association would cost, and the key point was that the company refused point blank to contemplate any deal which wrote in job security.

This morning Qantas had not made any further comment on the dispute.

However, the association hardened its language, with a statement headed “Tragedy looms for Qantas as hard line management trashes its brand, seeks to smash its pilots”.

It said:

Qantas is on the brink this morning as a questionable management team shows its contempt for its workforce by refusing to negotiate job security in return for improved flexibility and productivity.

President of the Australian and International Pilots Association Barry Jackson said the situation was a tragedy, with management seemingly eager to destroy its relationship with loyal workers.

“We are witnessing the demise of an icon through mismanagement.  This is not the first time some of the Qantas managers have been through this. Many were centrally involved in the destruction of Ansett and Australian Airlines and back then, as they are today, the same industrial consultants are advising them. If Qantas disappears they will have wiped out all of the founding entities in Australian aviation.

“This dispute is about jobs and whether there will be a recognisable aviation industry based in Australia in the future.”

Mr Jackson said that the degradation of Qantas mainline has not stopped at the first subsidiary.

“Jetstar is now being undercut and off-shored at every opportunity, with the imminent formation of more off-shore bases proudly announced by Mr Joyce at recent company roadshows.”

Peter Fray

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