With the Qantas lockout of more than 80,000 customers without notice coming to an end this afternoon, the dispute that a 2am Fair Work Australia ruling appeared to solve is already hitting new turbulence.

The Transport Workers Union, representing the ground handling staff, said it was taking urgent legal advice as to whether it should appeal the FWA ruling.

National secretary Tony Sheldon simultaneously pledged to abide by the 21-day period (starting today) during which it can conciliate its differences with Qantas before a compulsory and binding arbitration could be made by the Fair Work umpire while having its legal team explore a ruling that he said needed to be challenged and, if possible, appealed.

His comments reflect some anger in the government, from the PM down, at the extreme action taken without due notice by Qantas to ground its domestic mainline and international fleets on Saturday until such time as the unions with which it was in dispute withdrew their legally protected industrial action.

The other unions, for the licensed engineers and the long-haul Qantas pilots, have also expressed concern that under this first major test of Julia Gillard’s Fair Work Australia laws, a company, Qantas, had attacked its customers — in its case 22,000 travellers overseas and about 80,000 within Australia — by stranding them at airports in order to force the abandonment of legal industrial action by unions with which it is in dispute by itself causing the necessary amount of harm to the national interest to trigger legal intervention.

At a press conference this morning Qantas CEO Alan Joyce made a virtue of this, saying the airline took that action, rather than directly approaching FWA, because under the rules the industrial actions of the unions was insufficient to meet the test of harming the national economy.

Before Joyce spoke, Gillard said of Qantas:

“They could have gone to the industrial umpire and sought assistance with arbitrating the dispute, working together with the industrial umpire to get it resolved. Instead they took the action, with very little notice to anyone, of grounding the planes and stranding passengers around Australia and the world.”

Just before she spoke, her industrial relations minister, Senator Chris Evans, described the Qantas actions as “extreme and provocative”.

However, Joyce seemed unperturbed by the falling out with the federal government, and soon after he started speaking about the overwhelming messages of support he had received from business and large shareholders for his “courageous” actions the Qantas share price jumped more than 6.5% in early trading on the ASX. Qantas rival and dispute beneficiary Virgin Australia saw its shares jump 5.5% in the same period.

Government ministers, starting with Transport Minister Anthony Albanese on Saturday night, have cast doubts on Joyce’s claims that the grounding decision was suddenly made on Saturday morning, but have confirmed that when it was conveyed to the government on Saturday afternoon — three hours before the groundings began and threw air travel into chaos — Joyce threatened that it would begin even sooner if word of it leaked out.

As the tales of misery continued from stranded travellers, including some who were abandoned by Qantas in flooded Bangkok when their London-Australia flight was grounded,  the question as to just how much damage Qantas had inflicted on its own brand and that of Australia as a destination took on a life of its own on social media.

Joyce this morning brushed that off, saying the Qantas brand was resilient, pointing to how it had quickly recovered from a long ground engineers strike in 2008. He said the decision had been taken spontaneously by the board on Saturday morning, although there had been contingency scenario planning for months before.

While the dislocated travellers, many of whom have vowed never to fly Qantas again, resume their trips, Joyce said Qantas had been saved from a slow death by a thousand cuts.

He said the government has been warned on numerous occasions that Qantas forward bookings had collapsed because of the uncertainty generated by the industrial action, and that it was “very clear that our longer term survival was in question”.

Perhaps it still is.

Peter Fray

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