Qantas flights resume after contract dispute

Qantas Airways planes return to the skies after an Australian court ruled on a bitter contract dispute that had prompted the world's 10th-largest airline to ground its entire fleet.

Delays expected as airline works through backlog

Qantas had grounded 108 planes in 22 countries. The company head said the first of the grounded aircraft is expected to fly later Monday afternoon. (Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Qantas Airways planes have returned to the skies after an Australian court ruled on a bitter contract dispute that had prompted the world's 10th-largest airline to ground its entire fleet.

A flight from Sydney to Jakarta, Indonesia, took off on Monday shortly after Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority gave the "Flying Kangaroo," as the Australian flag carrier is known, the all-clear to resume flying.

Qantas said in a statement it still expected some delays as it worked to clear the backlog of customers affected by the nearly 48-hour grounding. The airline is adding extra flights and expects its schedule to return to normal within one or two days.

The grounding disrupted the travel plans of tens of thousands of people across the world, and Qantas passengers were gathering at airports in Australia, Los Angeles and elsewhere in the hopes of finally getting to their destinations.

The airline's resumption of flights comes around 12 hours after an emergency ruling by an arbitration court ended weeks of strikes and cancelled a staff lockout.

The court ruling was a major victory in the airline's battle with unions representing pilots, aircraft mechanics, baggage handlers and caterers, whose rolling strikes have forced the cancellation of 600 flights in recent months, disrupted travel for 70,000 passengers and cost Qantas roughly $75 million Cdn.

But some aviation experts said the surprise grounding of all 108 planes on Saturday has hurt the Australian flagship carrier's reputation around the world. Moody's Investors Service said it could downgrade the airline's credit ratings as the weekend's events could hurt bookings, profits and the value of the Qantas brand.

By the numbers

  • 68,000 passengers were affected by flight cancellations worldwide.
  • 447 flights were cancelled.
  • 108 planes were grounded in 22 cities.
  • Qantas flies to 208 destinations in 46 countries.
  • The airline says the grounding was costing it $20 million a day.
  • 35,000 employees were affected by the grounding.

Still, the stock market welcomed the weekend developments as allowing the airline to focus on its long-term strategy. Qantas shares on Monday jumped 4.3 per cent to $1.71 Cdn on the stock exchange in Sydney.

Henry Harteveldt, an airline industry analyst in San Francisco, predicts the shutdown will do long-term damage to the Qantas name by hurting its reputation for reliability.

"A lot of travellers won't take a chance and will book away to Virgin Australia, Air New Zealand and other airlines," Harteveldt said. "Brand loyalty in the airline business is very low, and there is so much competition."

Before the court ruling, Virgin Australia said it was scheduling extra flights and offering 20 per cent fare discounts to help stranded Qantas passengers through Thursday.

If Qantas loses customers, that could also hurt partners in its alliance of global airlines, including American Airlines. A rival alliance that includes Air New Zealand and is led by United Continental Holdings Inc. could benefit, as could a third group of airlines that includes several major Asian carriers and is led by Delta Air Lines Inc. and Air France-KLM.

CEO Alan Joyce praised the court ruling, which prevents unions from taking any further strike action over their demands for pay hikes and job security clauses under news contracts being negotiated. The strikes have been blamed for a sharp decline in the airline's future bookings.

"The important thing is that all industrial action is now over and we have certainty," Joyce told reporters in Sydney.

"We will be returning to business as usual over the next 24 hours," he said.

Other industry veterans said the lockout was a daring move that will pay off for Qantas, which wants to expand the low-cost, low-fare model that it uses at its Jetstar Airways subsidiary.

Jetstar has extensive routes to Southeast Asia and Japan, and lower costs than Qantas. But Qantas unions fear that expansion of low-cost airlines will result in Australian jobs being sent overseas. Joyce hopes to bend the unions closer to the company's vision for growth by tapping into Asian markets.

'Shrewd move'

"It was a very shrewd move by their CEO to force the issue and stop the potential deterioration of the brand," said Mo Garfinkle, an airline consultant who has worked for Qantas rival Virgin Australia. "In the end, it will benefit Qantas financially."

Garfinkle said the short duration of the fleet grounding will help Qantas get back up to full speed quickly, cutting its losses.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Monday described the grounding as "extreme," while Transport Minister Tony Albanese has sharply criticized Joyce for giving the government only three hours notice of his plans.

The Australian government, angered by a lack of warning of the grounding, had called an emergency court hearing on Saturday night to end the work bans for the sake of the national economy.

The three judges heard more than 14 hours of testimony from the airline, the government and unions. Workers have held rolling strikes and refused overtime work for weeks out of worry that some of Qantas' 32,500 jobs would be moved overseas in a restructuring plan.