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Will Alan Joyce shut down Qantas again as strikes hit airline?

Workers have fought many of Mr Joyce’s actions in court over the past 15 years.

Workers have fought many of Mr Joyce’s actions in court over the past 15 years. Photo: TND/Getty/AAP

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce may again ground the airline’s entire fleet if unions push ahead with industrial action, a former high-level staffer has warned.

Tony Webber, Airline Intelligence & Research CEO and former Qantas chief economist, said the airline would likely rely on alternative staff to get through strikes, but Mr Joyce might repeat his radical 2011 step and shut down Qantas.

‘‘That’s something that’s not out of the question for Alan Joyce,’’ Dr Webber said.

‘‘He shut down the airline in 2011 because of the persistence in strike activities, so if he believes that the conditions or the wage demands are unacceptable, then that could be where the airline ends up, being shut down for a period of time.’’

Ground handlers from air services provider Dnata, which contracts workers to 30 airlines in Australia, including Qantas, will walk off the job for 24 hours on Monday, September 12.

The strike will include about 350 workers across Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide.

New South Wales and Victoria-based workers from ground-handling labour provider Menzies are set to apply to the Fair Work Commission to hold similar action.

The Transport Workers Union said workers from both companies are pushing for more than 20 guaranteed hours per week for part-time employees, and pay increases.

Although Dnata and Menzies are on the hook for negotiations, the TWU singled out Qantas’s low-cost contracts for imposing commercial pressure on the companies and preventing more favourable enterprise agreements.

‘‘For many, it’s now a choice between going on strike for decent conditions or being forced to leave the industry,’’ TWU national secretary Michael Kaine said.

Grounding flights a last resort

International flights are expected to be most affected by next week’s strike, but a Qantas spokesperson told The New Daily the airline has contingency plans to minimise the impact on international passengers.

These plans will likely include asking senior executives to fill in the gaps, as they were asked to do in early August to combat ground-handler shortages, Dr Webber said.

Although Qantas has not traditionally been in the habit of replacing ground staff with office-based staff, they have been prepared to do so for years.

Dr Webber said during his time working as an economist with the airline, he also participated in a training session around 2006 and 2007 to prepare him for various roles as a contingency plan.

‘‘They’ll have staff doing training to check in customers. They’ll have staff training to offload and [load] baggage,’’ he said.

The upcoming strikes are the latest in a series of disputes between workers and airlines, particularly for Qantas, which has been struggling to rebuild trust among workers and passengers after mass layoffs early in the pandemic left the airline struggling to meet demand when travel resumed.

In late August, Qantas engineers engaged in industrial action by delaying the start of each shift by one minute in protest against the pay deal offered by the airline, which includes a two-year wage freeze followed by a below-inflation 2 per cent annual increase and a $5000 one-off bonus.

If the action fails to get a response, engineers could walk off the job for up to 12 hours at a time, and refuse to work overtime.

Unions are in a ‘‘very strong’’ bargaining position as airlines struggle to secure workers with the country’s labour shortage, said Dr Webber.

If Qantas is shut down then passengers not already in flight will have to rebook their flights for later in the year or with other airlines, and will likely receive a Qantas credit rather than a monetary refund.

This would be damaging for Qantas financially and reputation wise, but it is not unprecedented; in 2011, the abrupt grounding of the Qantas fleet and cancellation of more than 440 flights affected about 70,000 domestic and international passengers without warning.

At the time, Mr Joyce said unions were ‘‘deliberately destabilising the company’’ with no end in sight.

‘‘That’s the worst-case scenario,’’ Dr Webber said.

‘‘But if [industrial action] continues to happen, the worst-case scenario will occur.’’

Unions and bosses go head to head

Qantas did not provide The New Daily with comment regarding any potential grounding of its flights, but said enterprise agreement negotiations are a matter for Dnata and its employees.

A Dnata spokesperson told The New Daily the company needs to make sure its operations are financially sustainable to deliver consistent  ground handling and cargo services, but hopes to come to an agreement this week as the matter returns to the Fair Work Commission.

“We are disappointed that we have been unable to reach an agreement with the bargaining representatives to date, despite offering reasonable pay increases and higher average earnings than our competitors,’’ the Dnata spokesperson said.

A spokesperson for Sydney Airport, which has seen its fair share of chaos this year thanks to worker shortages, says the airport hopes the latest round of issues can be resolved as soon as possible.

“We are putting in place contingency plans and will have extra customer service staff in the terminals to assist passengers,’’ the spokesperson said.

“People who are travelling on Monday should monitor the situation closely and check with their airlines regarding the status of their flight.”

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