Since its pilots voted overwhelmingly to support any union call for lawful or protected industrial action, Qantas management has started arguing with its pilots about its plans to restructure the airline group rather than their pay claims for a tiny 2.5% three-year pay deal.

This may prove to be a game-losing own goal.

To boil down the management response, it is that union demands that all Qantas pilots be trained to current Qantas standards and have their jobs paid and located in Australia are “excessive and unsustainable” and a “veto on change”.

Hello Treasury, the ATO, and members of parliaments? Can you drag your heads out of the trough in the Qantas Chairman’s Lounge long enough to digest something more important than your perks?

This is dangerous ground for Qantas, given that this implies that current piloting culture of excellence is unaffordable, and that jobs sent abroad will somehow translate into bigger profits at a time when mismanagement continues to drive a shrinking Qantas market share further towards oblivion.

The notion that a smaller Qantas, but one increasingly augmented by Qantas-controlled-and-financed entities flown and serviced by labour paid under Asian terms and conditions, is going to be a better Qantas, has become the real issue in this dispute.

The Australian and International Pilots Association has wedged management by taking on the role of defending public perceptions of Qantas excellence rather than promoting their claims for improved pay and conditions.

Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce has already committed himself to a wide-ranging restructuring announcement on August 24, the day it reports its full year to June 30 results to shareholders who haven’t  had a dividend for two years.

Joyce’s frequent claims that Qantas international is unsustainable and his equally frequent brushing aside of requests for disclosure as to how much that situation reflects the paying of costs associated with the Jetstar franchise can be read alongside claims by Jetstar group CEO  Bruce Buchanan, that lower-paid, lower-experience pilots are better than those whose pay and conditions reflect a much more costly company investment in safety standards and professional experience.

Joyce was the CEO of Jetstar when it nearly destroyed an airliner in 2007 because it improperly changed and consequently degraded the standard operating procedures for a missed approach in its A320 fleet, one of which then nearly flew into the ground in fog trying to climb away from Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport with the engines set to reduced rather than go-around thrust settings.

In his own public guidance, Joyce has talked up the merits of offshore alliances, ventures and service agreements, all of which remove from the direct control of Qantas those very things the public expect it to uphold, and that obviously threaten union jobs too.

After the very serious QF32 incident on November 4 last year, in which a defective Rolls-Royce engine disintegrated and severely damaged an Airbus A380, Joyce attacked  the engine maker for its secrecy in not telling Qantas things it knew about that engine, and about its decision to “fix” the deficiencies in its own sweet time.

Yet Joyce continues to support such service agreements, where Qantas saves money, but is at the mercy of service failures by third parties that are replacing its own maintenance and engineering facilities and their decades of experience.

Similarly the airline is resisting Qantas pilot concerns that the carrier’s professional piloting standards are being traded in for external providers of pilots, some of whom will replace Australian pilots by being based somewhere in Asia, and flying to and from this country and then onwards to Europe and other destinations.

In what has been interpreted in pilot ranks as an effort to reduce redundancy costs in the impending August 24 restructure, Qantas last week told its pilots that they could apply for leave of absence for three years to fly as first officers for Emirates, its most aggressive and successful long-haul competitor.

For travellers uninterested in labour-management disputes,  this is also a row about what Qantas will be in the future. Will it continue to be “the Spirit of Australia”, and will it continue to chest beat over being the national flag carrier when more of its experienced pilots are flying for foreign carriers, having been replaced by lower-paid, less-experienced foreign pilots?

It is a very perverse outlook. Experienced  Qantas pilots forced abroad, to strengthen the likes of Emirates and Singapore Airlines, while the pilots they reject get hired by Qantas Asian franchises because they are cheap, inexperienced and supposedly good for the bottom line.