A last minute cancellation of this afternoon’s licensed engineer strikes at Qantas has avoided further passenger dislocations in the four-month war of words between the airline and its major unions.

The airline had prepared the way for a confrontation with full page “We’re Sorry” ads in this morning’s papers for those regular travellers who still get their news that way.

This is a strange set of industrial disputes for a number of reasons. Qantas has put a lot of hard work into ensuring that its passengers are well informed of the flight delays and cancellations it has seen fit to make in advance, thus minimising the inconvenience to frequent flyers whose brand loyalty keeps its domestic operations highly profitable.

However it isn’t drawing attention to this in its public campaign, preferring to emphasise the negatives of union actions it sees as obstructing its own plans to replace the brand as much as possible with Jetstar and to offshore cabin crew and pilots with fly in/ fly out arrangements to bypass Australian labor and superannuation obligations as much as possible.

The result this morning on live television reports from various Qantas terminals has been yet another charade in which reporters find themselves repeating the management lines about chaos in the air in front of what are perfectly normally functioning airports.

There are three sets of actions underway at Qantas authorized by Fair Work Australia after the respective unions met all of the tests of negotiating in good faith with management in seeking timely negotiated enterprise bargaining outcomes.

There are the Qantas long haul pilots, who have limited their actions to wearing atrocious red ties (made in China) and making in flight announcements in support of the truth in advertising notion that all Qantas flights should be flown by Qantas pilots trained to Qantas standards.

There are the ground staff, mainly baggage handlers, who have held the odd stop work meeting and will do so again this Thursday, maybe.

And there are the licensed engineers, who in terms of network punctuality, perform crucial operational maintenance, and whose role was to have been taken by management workers this afternoon.

The media seems to have forgotten that these are the same engineers who banned overtime off and on for around three months in 2008, but in particular, in May and June of that year, and broke the resolve of Qantas under previous CEO Geoff Dixon, when the airline gave in to their previous set of pay claims, which on expiry, have given rise to the current dispute.

That licensed engineers dispute did seriously dislocate domestic and international Qantas passengers.

Aware of the safety risks involved in deferred line maintenance of the type that the licensed engineers had been performing during compulsory overtime, Qantas meticulously reviewed the engineering status of each flight during that prolonged dispute to avoid sending off jets that might be carrying both a permitted defect in engine thrust reversers and a permitted defect in a wheel brake, which if present on the same jet, might have combined during a wet landing or other abnormal situation to cause a disaster.

As a result, the airline kept hundreds of thousands of passengers in a state of chaos for many weeks on end.  Three years ago, and already forgotten.

Unless someone blinks these disputes will inevitably be resolved by compulsory arbitration, which means that the claims being made for job security by the license engineers and pilots will be dismissed as outside the court’s jurisdiction, while the pay rise and productivity components will be applied in part or full.

ABC TV reports this morning also claimed incorrectly that Qantas was in dispute with customs and immigration officials at international terminals. This is nonsense. That dispute is between a public service association and a Federal department, and affects all airlines.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW