It looks more like stormy rather than blue skies ahead for Qantas and its pilots, licensed engineers and ground staff  this afternoon as the first of its grounded jets returned to service following a 2 am emergency ruling by Fair Work Australia which terminated industrial action by all of the parties.

The circumstances of the Qantas ambush, in which it deliberately inflicted massive dislocation through flight cancellations on tens of thousands of customers without warning on Saturday in order to create a large enough potential threat to the Australian economy to meet the FWA criteria for outlawing further action by dissident pilots, licensed engineers and ground staff has triggered fierce criticism or support from politicians and financial commentators all day.

It even lead to the Daily Telegraph inventing a story that said the Qantas ambush would not have occurred if the Prime Minister Julia Gillard had not ignored a call from Qantas CEO Alan Joyce.

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Both Joyce and Gillard have comprehensively denied and denounced that report.

In something of a circus act before the real issues began to attract more general media scrutiny Joyce was also forced to ‘clarify’, that is, deny the claims he can be heard making to ABC Radio National presenter Fran Kelly this morning that he had ‘many times’ warned government ministers that he could be forced to ground the Qantas fleet.

Joyce managed to put the government totally offside by giving it only three hours notice on Saturday afternoon that he was going to ground the fleet while warning them that he would do it immediately if word of the decision which the board had suddenly taken that morning leaked out.

The result was a press conference today at which the PM and Transport Minister Anthony Albanese spend much of the time, and later, much of parliamentary Question Time, dealing with what the head of Qantas said, to the precise minute, and what they said or didn’t say, and what Joyce had subsequently agreed he didn’t say.

The brutal facts are, however, that something like 22,000 overseas Qantas passengers were ‘dislocated’ without warning at overseas airports, including around 300 who were dumped in flooded Bangkok when their London to Australia flight was told to abandon the final leg of its journey at the Thai capital.

In Australia Qantas has used figures ranging from 68,000 passengers variously stranded or told not to go the airports between Saturday night and Sunday afternoon,  to more than 120,000 displaced flyers by this morning, as additional booked customers cancelled their trips, took to Qantas paid hotels or found seats on Jetstar, Virgin Australia, or in buses, trains and rented cars.

Joyce said Qantas would be back to ‘normal’ within 24 hours, CASA said this would happen within 48 hours, and there are indications that for some unlucky international customers, the delays could extend to around 72 hours.

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce made no secret this morning of the rationale behind the groundings. To get the unions to agree to its terms for new enterprise agreements it needed to cause so much misery for tens of thousands of unsuspecting and now possibly former customers that the government would refer the dispute to FWA.

This Qantas management is as passionately opposed to external direction as to how it should run its business as it is to organised labor, but the FWA ruling early this morning starts a 21 day conciliation period, after which, in the absence of real progress, the tribunal must make a binding arbitration that will be in effect for three years and cannot be appealed, or easily modified.

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.

Its national secretary, Tony Sheldon simultaneously pledged to abide by the 21 day conciliation while having its legal team explore a ruling that he said needed to be challenged and if possible appealed.

A spokesperson for the TWU later sent a message saying:

We are examining an appeal as a ‘safety net’. It is only about examining potential legal remedies if Qantas management does not take negotiations seriously. We want the matter sorted as soon as possible in good faith.

The Australian and International Pilot Association called for yet another inquiry into the truthfulness of management claims about a spontaneous decision to ground the entire fleet, to be added to NSW police inquiries into alleged death threats which are widely regarded as having been a media stunt.

It said:

AIPA President Captain Barry Jackson said Mr Joyce’s repeated claim that he made the decision to ground the entire Qantas fleet in a snap decision on Saturday was suspect in the extreme and a full judicial inquiry should be held into the circumstances.

“Mr Joyce’s claim, that he made this disgraceful and reckless decision on Saturday, is very tough to believe,” Captain Jackson said.

“We understand hotel rooms were booked all over the globe on Thursday. The couriers who delivered lock-out notices to pilots yesterday were booked last week. Qantas management representatives at Fair Work Australia even admitted on Saturday that preparations for a possible grounding had been underway for ten days.

“Mr Joyce needs to be provide all the facts about how long he has planned to abandon unsuspecting Qantas passengers.“If it is true that Mr Joyce planned this action in advance then he needs to explain to Qantas passengers why he continued to sell them tickets.”

“Here we have a CEO who pocketed a two million dollar pay rise on Friday, stranded 68,000 passengers around the globe on Saturday, tried to pin the blame on the government on Sunday and then thinks he can claim victory and walk away scot-free on Monday.

On Friday a Senate inquiry begins into two proposed bills which have the potential to frustrate Qantas ambitions to outsource jobs to workers based in Asia on Asian pay and conditions, including pilot and cabin attendants who might be rotated through its domestic Jetstar or Qantas operations for three or four day tours of duty.

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.’

It still is.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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