Qantas told to get back in the air

Tribunal decrees end to industrial action but tens of thousands still face travel delays

As an exercise in the creation of anxiety, the wait for the decision of Fair Work Australia on the grounding of Qantas was a match for the worst airport delay. At departure lounges around the world, and in tens of thousands of prospective travellers' homes, weary eyes were fixed on the proceedings of Australia's "industrial umpire".

The hearing progressed as slowly as a passing cloud of volcanic ash. After 12 hours of debate and deliberation, the judges finally ordered an end to all industrial action at the airline at 2.15am today, Melbourne time. But, in both the short and long term, the prospects for the carrier that styles itself "Spirit of Australia" look turbulent.

On Saturday, Qantas cancelled all its flights with immediate effect, ahead of a lock-out of staff that was due to start at 9am GMT today. The chief executive, Alan Joyce, said he was grounding the fleet because the unions were "trashing our strategy and our brand".

The move has so far hit more than 100,000 travellers, including around 3,000 passengers stranded at Heathrow airport. Fair Work Australia ruled that the lock-out should be lifted immediately to avoid further damage to the economy. The verdict obliges the airline and the unions to reach a binding agreement on their grievances within three weeks or face compulsory arbitration.

Qantas managers have been fighting the unions on three fronts for several months. In a dispute over pay, seniority and job security, the engineers' union imposed a go-slow and overtime ban that was scheduled to run at least until Christmas. A backlog of maintenance work has built up, causing Qantas to ground seven aircraft and cancel hundreds of flights, mainly domestic departures, in recent weeks.

There were also disputes with ground staff belonging to the Transport Workers Union, and the pilots' union. The airline accused the union of "demanding that Qantas hand over control of parts of the business to union leaders".

The secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Jeff Lawrence, was close to tears as he spoke to reporters after the decision. He criticised what he said was the airline's failure "to negotiate in a fair way", but pledged to "work with the company to make sure the Australian public is not inconvenienced".

Bill Shorten, Australia's Assistant Treasurer, said "We are pleased that after 24 hours of turmoil, common sense will be restored". Restoring normal schedules will take several days, during which tens of thousands of passengers face further disruption. All Qantas flights up to noon today were cancelled, with a gradual resumption expected in the afternoon. When services finally resume, passengers who happen to be booked on those departures take precedence over the travellers whose flights have been cancelled.

Mending the airline's reputation could take considerably longer. During the Fair Work Australia hearing, it was revealed that the Civil Aviation Safety Authority had contacted Qantas earlier this month with concerns about the safety of the airline's fleet. And the high-stakes game played by Mr Joyce has attracted scathing criticism from stranded travellers.

Meanwhile Qantas's rivals were assessing the benefits they had reaped from the disruption. Sir Richard Branson tweeted "Congrats everybody at Virgin Australia and Virgin Atlantic for doing a great job in getting as many Qantas passengers on their way as possible".

The end of a high-flying career?

An Irishman with a reputation for taking on unions, Qantas's chief executive Alan Joyce has become the symbol of the airline's battle against its disgruntled workforce. If he fails in his efforts to cut costs, though, he may also become the symbol of its demise.

The job never looked easy. When he was appointed in 2008, the crowning glory of a career that began at Aer Lingus 20 years earlier, it was understood that his priority would be to cut costs.

As a childhood maths prodigy who still reads maths books for fun, he has the right skill set. But the work isn't much fun any more. In recent months he has received hate mail referring to him as "foreign filth". Even politicians have suggested he doesn't "get" the Australian psyche. "It's insulting and annoying," he says. "I have said to them, 'I am an Australian now... I'm very proud of this country and I'm not going anywhere."

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