Longer term observers of Qantas have much to think about after Qantas international pilots today decided to campaign on the issue of keeping the airline Australian, rather than engaging in lawful strike action in support of their pay claims.

This is after all, the same high ground that every Qantas management in its post war history championed in their relations with government and consumers, until the ultimately unsuccessful private equity bid that the management team led by Margaret Jackson and Geoff Dixon urged on shareholders late in 2006.

But since that bid went down in May 2007  and Jackson, its chair, and Dixon, its CEO, were replaced by Leigh Clifford and Alan Joyce respectively, it became increasingly obvious that they also saw a brighter future in the trans border franchising of the Jetstar low cost brand, than what they see as the unsustainably high costs of supporting a full service brand.

The situation today is one in which the pilots and engineers are insisting that Qantas stay Australian, and management is damning this as being a ‘veto on change,’ which it intends to pursue by shifting as much activity offshore as possible, replacing Australian tax paying labor with employees paid according to the industrial laws of countries where Qantas sets up bases to operate into and out of Australia.

The so called ‘kamikaze’ pilot union at Qantas, as Joyce termed it, this morning announced it wouldn’t immediately strike over its unresolved EBA negotiations with the airline, and would limit its protected industrial action to making brief in flight statements, erecting roadside billboards, and running a website explaining its concerns about keeping Qantas Australian rather than moving thousand of jobs to Asian entities.

In a return salvo, Qantas deplored the intrusion on the in flight experience that the pilots would force upon its passengers, as well as attacking their demands for guarantees that only Qantas pilots would fly Qantas jets.

Both sides emphasised that at this stage it appeared that no one would find their flight grounded by strike action.

The pilots are trying to shame Qantas in advance of the foreshadowed August 24 announcement by management of a restructuring of international services, its intentions in terms of setting up an Asia based full service carrier to supplement its expansion of the low cost Jetstar franchise, and a new set of joint business agreements in which other airlines will take over services which Qantas says are unsustainable.

Qantas management in response is arguing that without change, Qantas will die, which is also what the pilots are saying, except that they are urging Qantas to get competitive with better fleet, product and network investments.

This non-strike strategy by the Australian and International Pilots Association means Qantas will probably go into the restructuring announcement with no headline grabbing strikes to point to,  unless the engineers association steps up its parallel campaign.

Job losses are expected from the August 24 restructuring. The core claim of the Qantas pilots, that anything sold as a Qantas service must really be one flown by pilots trained to Qantas standards and paid according to Australian conditions, is likely to collide with the full extent of plans to replace them with cheaper, and less experienced pilots.

An AIPA member and first officer, Nathan Safe, told a press conference “The biggest wake up call we can send the current management team is to blow the whistle on their plans to strip a proud  Australian icon down to its bare bones and shift operations to Asia.

“When Australians board a Qantas flight they expect a Qantas pilot to be at the controls. Our initial campaign is to focus on raising awareness that this very basic expectation is under threat.”