It’s possible that the general media might start to notice how ‘weird’ the Qantas strike situation really is after today’s developments.

Qantas was so certain that it would at last get a great big strike that it placed large ‘We’re sorry’ ads in this morning’s papers for those who still get their news in print.

Yet this could hardly have been done to inform its frequent flyers most of whom have been kept fully informed about rescheduled bookings and cancelled flights using social media and text messages,  something the airline has done so well that comparatively little inconvenience has been done to travellers throughout the four months war of words that has been fought between Qantas and its long haul pilots, its licensed aircraft engineers and its ground staff.

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The result was that about 11,000 people  (according to Qantas) were never going to turn up as originally booked for the dozens of flights that the airline had cancelled or deferred today in anticipation of a strike action that was in fact called off about three hours before members of its licensed engineers union were to begin four hour stop works in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

Yet again, all that television reporters had to show in their reports from assorted Qantas terminals today were nearly empty buildings and vignettes of  spokesperson Olivia Wirth trying to keep a straight face while railing against the chaos that was nowhere to be seen.

Which ought to eventually cause people to ask ‘what is really going on?’

There are three sets of action 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.

In law each these unions can only take court sanctioned protected industrial action, and so far, they have been reluctant to do so.

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 there are the licensed engineers, who in terms of network punctuality, perform crucial operational maintenance.

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 previous 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 2008 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.

The problem with the premature Qantas ‘We’re Sorry’ ads today is that they try to associate what management calls ‘unsustainable losses’ in its full service long haul brand with union actions that haven’t happened, when all of the damage that is already apparent in the international operations of Qantas can be blamed on poor management.

Qantas long haul has resolutely declined to less than one sixth of the international market because it refused to fly one stop services in modern fuel and maintenance efficient airliners to European and Asian centres in competition with Singapore Airline, Cathay Pacific, Thai International and Emirates.  It created those opportunities for its competitors by sticking with a dysfunctional arrangement with British Airways that assumed Australians would tolerate an extra half day via London to get to places smarter competitors realized were there for the taking.

The latest stroke of genius from Qantas management has been to give away half of its capacity to London six months before next year’s Olympics to mid point connections with British Airways flights in Bangkok or Hong Kong, some of which involve gaps of up to five hours between flights while Qantas switches focus to a new venture in China, Singapore, Malaysia or who knows where, with a name like Red Q, which will pretend to be a flag carrier of the new host country in order to take market share from such inept and defenceless local brands as Cathay Pacific or Singapore Airlines.

It would be laughable in a comedy skit. But it’s the game plan of the current Qantas management, and its going to be flown in single aisle A320s, which can’t even fly non-stop between Kuala Lumpur or Singapore and Sydney or Melbourne anyhow.

The worst result for Qantas in its efforts to convince the public that it is all the fault of the unions that the airline is in such a mess is that it might start to  lose credibility,  especially with its shareholders.

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.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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