FAIR Work Australia will hold a hearing in a bid to resolve the Qantas dispute at 10pm tonight in Melbourne.
The hearing is being held following an application by the federal government under section 424 of the Fair Work Act.
The hearing will be held at Fair Work Australia’s registry in Melbourne. It will be videolinked to FWA’s registry in Sydney.
Qantas today grounded its entire domestic and international fleets indefinitely and announced a lockout of engineers, pilots and other employees beginning on Monday night.
The move comes as a result of a long-running industrial impasse between Qantas and three unions: the Australian and International Pilots Association (AIPA), the Transport Workers Union (TWU) and the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association (ALAEA).
The section of the Fair Work Act under which the government is making its application would enable Fair Work Australia to issue an order to suspend or terminate industrial action if it is satisfied that the action would threaten ”personal safety, or the health, or welfare, of the population … or cause significant damage to the Australian economy”.
If FWA is unable to determine the application in that time it must make an interim order until the application can be determined.
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Federal Transport Minister Anthony Albanese said Qantas’ decision to ground its fleet without advanced notice to the government is ”a breach of faith”.
Mr Albanese said Qantas had only advised the government of the action they were preparing to take the action after 2pm today, just three hours before the airline’s CEO Alan Joyce announced it publicly.
Mr Albanese described the action as ”disappointing” and ”extraordinary”.
”Qantas had not indicated that they wanted the government to intervene, nor had the unions … either publicly or privately, so it is extraordinary that Qantas has taken this action,” Mr Albanese told reporters in Sydney.
”Certainly it’s the case that given that the government was given no advanced notification of this action.
”But I think it is certainly a breach of faith with the government, the fact that there was no advanced notice of this action being taken by Qantas.
”I indicated that very clearly to Mr Joyce this afternoon.”
A taskforce is being established to help travellers who are affected by the groundings, Mr Albanese said.
He questioned the announcement of the groundings by Mr Joyce, just a day after the airline’s annual general meeting.
”I’ll leave it for those who know something about the aviation industry to deliberate whether that decision was made this morning or whether there has been some planning prior to this morning.”
He said he hoped the parties in the dispute ”act like adults” and recognise they have a common interest in the ongoing success of the iconic airline.
Independent Senator Xenophon said Mr Joyce needed to explain how long he had been planning to ground the airline.
”When did Qantas notify other airlines to expect a sudden increase in demand and when did Qantas begin checking hotel availability in various locations around the world,” he said.
Senator Xenophon urged the federal government to step in and quickly resolve the issue.
He said said he still expected Qantas management to appear at a Senate inquiry next Friday on legislation he introduced concerning the off-shoring of Qantas.
”As far as I am concerned Mr Joyce can get a bus to Canberra,” he said.
Qantas chief Alan Joyce grounded all Qantas flights immediately and blames ongoing union action for his decision.
For anyone booked to fly in the next 24 hours, Qantas advises that you call 13 13 13 or follow updates on Twitter
In an announcement beamed live across Australia Mr Joyce said unions were “deliberately destabilising our company” and that the airline could not afford the ongoing actions.
Mr Joyce said all Qantas staff involved in strike action would be locked out of the company as of 8pm on Sunday.
“We are locking out until the unions withdraw their extreme claim and reach agreement with us,” Qantas Mr Joyce told a press conference on Saturday.
Mr Joyce said his hand had been tipped by the impossible demands of the unions.
“They are trashing our strategy and our brand,” he said.
“They are deliberately destabilising the company and there is no end in sight.”
If the industrial action continued, Qantas would have no choice but to shut down its business “part by part”, the chief executive said.
He believed the lockout and grounding of the fleet was the only effective avenue at his disposal to bring about a solution to the dispute.
Mr Joyce said he was sorry the course of action had become necessary but the ball was now in the unions’ court.
“They must decide just how badly they want to hurt Qantas, their members … and the travelling public,” he said.
The airline will offer hotel accommodation and alternative flights to those who are mid-journey and can’t get home when the grounding takes effect.
And there will be refunds and ticket transfers available to passengers whose flights are cancelled.
Qantas will keep passengers updated on the situation via its website, Facebook page and Twitter.
Yesterday Mr Joyce warned that half the airline would “be gone” within a year – with tens of thousands of jobs potentially at risk – if unions pursued their industrial campaign into 2012.
Mr Joyce, speaking after the airline’s annual general meeting yesterday, said parts of the airline would begin to be shut down if the current dispute with engineers, pilots and ground staff was not resolved.
“If action continues … we will have no choice but to shrink the airline bit by bit,” he said.
“If it goes for more than a year, we estimate we will have to shut down half of Qantas operations. That’s 50 per cent of Qantas, gone. This would have very grave consequences for jobs.”
His stark assessment of the financial costs of industrial action now crippling the airline – estimated to be $2 million a day – has put a cloud over at least 17,000 jobs, or almost half the Qantas workforce.
The airline warned last night that a 48-hour strike by three unions would ground the airline, leaving up to 150,000 passengers stranded.
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The escalation of the dispute came as Qantas shareholders gave Mr Joyce’s $5 million pay packet of their tick of approval.
The Transport Workers Union and the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association both warned they could undertake 48-hour strikes yesterday, while the Australian and International Pilots Association also has that right.
Mr Joyce told the Herald Sun last night the airline would stand firm despite the unions’ threats.
“If these unions walk off the job for two days we would be left with no choice but to ground the airline until they returned to work,” he said.
“The unions are holding Qantas and our passengers to ransom.”
The airline has already lost $68 million as a result of industrial action that has disrupted more than 70,000 passengers, so far.
That bill will hit $540 million – more than the airline’s pre-tax profit last financial year – if the dispute is not resolved by June.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard yesterday stopped short of saying she would intervene under the Fair Work Act powers.
“I believe Australians expect the parties to this dispute to get it resolved and get it fixed,” she said.
– with Stephen Drill and Vanda Carson