Covid-19-stressed Qantas clash with unions intensifies on move to scrap crew deal

Qantas said it has asked Australia's Fair Work Commission to end an agreement with long-haul cabin crew. PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (BLOOMBERG) - Qantas Airways applied to end a pre-pandemic agreement with cabin crew as it seeks more flexibility on rostering to recover from the Covid-19 crisis, a move unions said jeopardises salaries and working conditions. 

Qantas said on Thursday (Jan 20) it has asked Australia’s Fair Work Commission to terminate its agreement with long-haul cabin crew, after a proposal for a new four-year deal that included better pay and allowances was rejected by the Flight Attendants’ Association of Australia (FAAA) and 97 per cent of staff who voted. 

The carrier said it was taking the unprecedented step as “a last resort to change restrictive and outdated rostering processes”.

The dispute underscores how airlines are being forced to change operating models - including slashing workforces and fleets - as Covid-19 weighs on global travel for a third year. Early recoveries in demand have been struck down by new variants, particularly Omicron. 

Qantas expects international operations to wallow at 20 per cent of pre-pandemic levels until April. 

According to the Sydney-based airline, international crew are limited to working exclusively on Airbus A330s, or only on Airbus A380s and Boeing 787s. That means about 20 per cent of more than 2,500 staff can work only on a single aircraft type. Qantas wants everyone to be trained for all three, allowing it to switch planes on routes based on demand. 

“We can’t effectively run our business without the rostering changes we desperately need to properly restart our international network,” said Qantas International chief executive Andrew David in the statement. “We have to operate in a more agile and flexible way.”

The airline’s formal application to tear up its deal with crew ratchets up tensions after six months of unsuccessful talks.

FAAA federal secretary Teri O’Toole said workers had negotiated in good faith, and she accused Qantas of using the rejected proposal “as an excuse to attack pay and conditions”.

Transport Workers’ Union national assistant secretary Nick McIntosh said Qantas’ “appalling behavior” would slash cabin crew pay by 30 per cent. Australian Council of Trade Unions president Michele O’Neil added that Qantas was “threatening workers to try and force through a deal”.

For its part, Qantas said terminating the agreement would put affected staff on lower pay and poorer conditions while a new deal is negotiated, but it will not result in job losses. The airline said it is willing to revive the offer that was rejected.

Mr David said: “The FAAA ran a scare campaign against the new deal, claiming it would mean redundancies and offshoring despite the fact that we’re currently hiring new crew in Australia. The union’s default position is that the company can’t be trusted and should always give more. That’s simply wrong.”

The Fair Work Commission should start dealing with the application in coming weeks, Qantas said. The airline has asked for the hearing to be expedited.

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