A text message roused me from a deep sleep at 2.26am. It was AA’s deputy editor, Andrew McLaughlin.
“QF has grounded its whole fleet immediately until unions withdraw claims!!!”
It took a few moments for the importance of that message to penetrate my sleepy fog.
“I’m dreaming that, right??” I messaged back.
Then it clicked. Wow, I’m meant to be flying home to Australia this evening. I’m going to be stranded.
Usually you cover stories from the outside, but this time, like 70,000 or so fellow Qantas travellers, I was in fact in the story. I was in the USA and was booked to fly home to Canberra on QF8 via Dallas Fort Worth and Brisbane. What happens next?
Qantas’s decision to ground itself, with immediate effect on Saturday Australian time, and then lock out staff from the ALAEA, TWU and AIPA, was stunning. It is without precedent in Australian aviation history. It took me hours to comprehend the magnitude of this action, and I bet it did too for my fellow affected Qantas passengers, not to mention Qantas staff, particularly those to be locked out. What was Alan Joyce playing at?
But slowly it dawned on me, once news of the Fair Work Australia hearing process filtered through. If Fair Work ordered all industrial action terminated and in effect put the airline back into the air (on the grounds of national economic interest), that was exactly the result Qantas management wanted. Terminated would mean no more industrial action by the three unions – in particular the much more belligerent TWU and ALAEA.
Joyce and the Qantas management team had bet it all on black, that Fair Work would terminate all industrial action and force the airline back to the negotiating table to come to agreements with the three unions, which, if necessary, would be arbitrated. It was the ‘big bang’ theory.
That surely is a win-win for the company. There will now be no more industrial action by these three unions. Full stop.
But secondly, surely employment guarantees and limitations on Qantas uses contract labour and codeshares with other airlines, as the unions want and Qantas has so vehemently resisted, can’t be included in those agreements. That falls outside Fair Work’s remit, which will focus purely on wages and conditions. And all along Qantas has said it is happy with three per cent per annum pay rises for TWU/ALAEA/AIPA staff (as it has given other staff groups in recent times), it is just the restrictions on how it chooses to run the business that was the critical sticking point.
So in one fell, albeit dramatic and risky, swoop, Qantas gets surety that it can resume operations without the threat of industrial action. Remember the uncertainty caused a little while back by ALAEA federal secretary Steve Purvinas’s comments that passengers shouldn’t book on Qantas through to Christmas because of the threat of industrial action?
On Qantas’s part there was clearly a calculated strategy of short term pain for long term gain. Or as Alan Joyce said in his press conference today “we didn’t want to suffer the death of a thousand cuts”.
Still, while this is a tactical victory for airline management, what of the other issues the grounding has thrown up? How will disrupted passengers react once their short term anger has subsided? Will they come back to the airline?
Will the big corporates (many of whom would have been cheering Qantas’s war against the airlines from the sidelines) stay loyal to the airline? What is the long term damage to the Qantas brand? What is the financial cost not just to Qantas, but the broader Australian economy, of all this pain?
Surely the toxic relationship and residual bitterness between Qantas management and its pilot, engineer and baggage/ground handler workforces will linger for years (remember the 1989 pilots’ dispute?), so how will the airline re-engage staff?
How big a boost is this to Virgin Australia’s bid to rebrand and reposition itself as a business friendly airline?
What was ‘Plan B’ if Fair Work didn’t terminate or suspend industrial action by all parties? Will Qantas pilots stop wearing red ties?
And when will I get home?