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Qantas flights grounded, nearly 70,000 passengers stranded

Australia's national carrier Qantas today said all domestic and international flights will remain grounded until at least midday tomorrow, amid an unprecedented industrial dispute that has hit nearly 70,000 passengers worldwide.

world Updated: Oct 30, 2011 20:48 IST

Australia's national carrier Qantas on Sunday said all domestic and international flights will remain grounded until at least midday Monday, amid an unprecedented industrial dispute that has hit nearly 70,000 passengers worldwide.

A day after the extraordinary decision to ground the global Qantas fleet, the battle between the airline and the labour unions resumed before Fair Work Australia, the country's industrial tribunal, while the government came under increasing pressure to act unilaterally to end the dispute.

As the Fair Work hearing here dragged on into the late hours, Qantas, the world's 10th-largest airline, warned that its planes would have to remain grounded until at least midday on Monday, regardless of what the tribunal decided.

Nearly 70,000 people have been affected by the cancellation of hundreds of flights in 22 countries. Qantas flies thrice weekly between Mumbai and Brisbane via Singapore, according to the website of the airline.

The strike has already embarrassed Prime Minister Julia Gillard, as some of the leaders who attended the just-ended Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) were due to fly on Qantas planes.

Gillard said the dispute between Qantas and unions needed to be ended.

"I believe Australians want to see this dispute settled. I want to see it settled and we have taken the appropriate action ... to bring the matter before the industrial umpire," she said in Perth.

Qantas grounded its fleet on Saturday and announced plans to lock out staff from three unions representing engineers, pilots and catering and baggage staff from tomorrow evening.

The airline said the grounding of all flights was a necessary reaction to a series of costly strikes and other industrial action, which the company said were costing $16 million a week.

The Qantas announcement came after months of wrangling between the airline's management and unions.

Relations started deteriorating in August after the airline announced plans for restructuring and moving some operations to Asia.

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said the airline would need the industrial action terminated, not just suspended, to be sure about flying again.

He said ongoing industrial action by pilots, engineers and baggage, ground and catering staff was risking the "entire future" of Qantas, as it battled to meet the challenges of increased competition and high costs.

The grounding has thrown Australia's aviation and tourism industry into turmoil, with about 68,000 passengers directly affected on Sunday.

More than 8,000 people were marooned at major overseas destinations including London, Singapore, Los Angeles and Hong Kong, The Age newspaper reported.

Australia's Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten blasted Qantas for acting without warning, and described the move to ground its fleet and lock out staff as a "radical overreaction".

"You don't lock out your passengers to square off with your employees," Shorten said.

Qantas has a 65% share of the domestic Australian market, but has been making heavy losses on its international flights, media reports said.

The restructuring in Qantas is expected to mean the loss of 1,000 jobs from its 35,000-strong workforce. Pilots have been engaged in protracted talks with management over wages, conditions and outsourcing of jobs to Asia, but they have yet to walk off the job - unlike baggage handlers, engineers and ground staff.

First Published: Oct 30, 2011 20:46 IST