Julia Gillard says legal uncertainty stopped her from ordering Qantas aircraft back into the air over the weekend, while airline boss Alan Joyce says he never expected the Government to step in.

Fair Work Australia (FWA) ordered an end to the action in the early hours of this morning, telling Qantas to get its aircraft back into the sky and drop its plans to lock out its workforce.

Ordering an immediate end to all industrial action by the airline and unions, FWA said it was acting to prevent significant damage to the tourism and airline industries.

Qantas situation at a glance:

  • Fair Work Australia (FWA) rules to terminate Qantas industrial action
  • Qantas to resume flights from mid afternoon on Monday
  • Backlog could take at least 24 hours to clear
  • All domestic and international flights were grounded on Saturday
  • Lockout of staff was to commence Monday morning
  • Qantas says 68,000 passengers affected worldwide
  • 447 flights were cancelled worldwide
  • Qantas is organising alternative flights and accommodation for stranded passengers, and refunds for people yet to travel.
  • The Federal Government was only informed of Qantas’ plan hours before it was announced.
  • Hotline for affected Qantas passengers: 13 13 13
  • Qantas updating passengers via its website, Facebook and Twitter
  • QantasLink and Jetstar are continuing to operate flights

The Federal Government asked the workplace umpire to rule on the dispute despite Section 431 of Labor’s Fair Work Act enabling a minister to issue a declaration to terminate industrial action.

This morning, Ms Gillard said Section 431 had never been used in Australian industrial history and may well have ended up stuck in the courts.

“[Any legal challenge would lead to] all of the time delays and uncertainties that would have meant for Qantas, its employees and the travelling public,” Ms Gillard told AM’s Stephen Dziedzic.

However, Ms Gillard later appeared to contradict herself, defending the Fair Work Act and declaring: “Everybody knows their legal position under the Fair Work Act.”

“Before the Fair Work Act, and now, it was possible for unions to take protected industrial action. Before the Fair Work Act, and now, it was possible for employers to lock workers out so it was possible to see the kind of industrial disputation we’ve seen this weekend.”

But Opposition Leader Tony Abbott questioned why the clause was in the act if it was not meant to be used.

“This is Julia Gillard’s act. She wrote it. She surely understands it. Why didn’t she use the section if she put it in there?” he asked.

Ms Gillard was particularly critical of Qantas for taking the action it did in grounding the fleet, describing it as “extreme”.

“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,” she said.

“Instead they took the action, with very little notice to anyone, of grounding the planes and stranding passengers around Australia and the world.”

Mr Abbott says Ms Gillard could have prevented the grounding had she taken a call from Qantas CEO Mr Joyce.

“We’ve had 48 hours of chaos because the Prime Minister wasn’t big enough to return Alan Joyce’s calls,” Mr Abbott said.

Ms Gillard conceded Mr Joyce did contact her office before he grounded the aircraft, but said he had not asked to speak to her.

“He did not make a request to speak to me about these matters. He understood that I was at CHOGM but in any event he had made it crystal clear to the Minister for Transport that he would be grounding the planes at 5pm – no ifs, no buts,” she said.

This morning Mr Joyce said Qantas respected the decision of the workplace umpire and described reports that the fleet would not have been grounded if Ms Gillard had taken the call as “misinformation”.

“We had talked to three senior ministers. I had no expectation to talk to the Prime Minister – I knew she was tied up with CHOGM,” he said.

He said he did not expect the government to intervene in the dispute.

“We had only one option under Fair Work Australia and that was to take our own industrial action to bring this to a head,” he said.

“We had to make the lockout decision so that we could sit down with the unions and negotiate with the unions on a fair basis, because up until now all the pain was on the Qantas side.

“The unions were not taking any pain and were talking about ‘slow-baking’ Qantas over the next year.”

Mr Joyce said the dispute was costing Qantas $15 million a week, with 70,000 passengers disrupted, and the matter needed to be brought to a head.

He said he told Government ministers “on multiple occasions” that grounding the fleet was an option.

“I said on multiple occasions we could get to a stage where we’d have to ground the airline. That is how bad this was and that was made very clear,” Mr Joyce told Radio National.

“This was not a surprise to anybody I would have thought. We have been talking about it for weeks, months about the pain this was causing Qantas.

“We were talking about this was not sustainable, that we had to bring this to a head. We have had briefings with ministers, with the departments. We had told them how our advance bookings were collapsing, we told them how our operation was deteriorating and reliability was collapsing.”

Apologising to customers, Mr Joyce said the first passenger flight should take off by 2:00pm and predicted the airline would be up to normal capacity by tomorrow.

The airline and the unions now have 21 days to negotiate a settlement to the dispute.

Read more about what caused the Qantas dispute.