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Mon 7 Nov 2011 09:47 AM

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Australia’s Qantas says ‘sorry’ with free tickets

Travellers hit by labour dispute given free flights, offer could cost airline up to $20m

Australia’s Qantas says ‘sorry’ with free tickets
About 80,000 passengers were affected when Qantas grounded 108 aircraft worldwide

Qantas Airways, Australia’s biggest carrier, offered free flights to apologize to passengers stranded when the fleet was grounded for two days last month during a dispute with labour unions.

Passengers whose journeys were disrupted by the halt are entitled to a free return economy flight within Australia or to New Zealand over a two-year period from Dec 14, the Sydney- based airline said.

“This ticket offer is one of a range of initiatives we will be launching as a way of saying sorry,” Qantas Chief Executive Officer Alan Joyce said in a statement yesterday. “Throughout the long period of industrial activity we have been acutely aware of the impact on our customers.”

About 80,000 passengers were affected when Qantas grounded 108 aircraft worldwide on Oct 29 for about 48 hours in an attempt to end strikes. Qantas and its engineers union resumed talks today with industrial relations regulator Fair Work Australia, Peter Somerville, general manager of the Australian Licenced Aircraft Engineers Association, said by telephone.

Fair Work ordered an end to stoppages on Oct 31, giving the airline and its engineers, long-haul pilots and baggage handlers 21 days to reach a new contract or face binding arbitration.

The disruption cost Qantas A$68m ($71m), the airline has said. The offer of free flights may cost the carrier as much as A$20m, the Sydney-based Daily Telegraph newspaper reported at the weekend.

Qantas has agreed with regulators that customers will be compensated for all reasonable losses arising from the grounding, and will be contacting affected passengers, the airline said.

Joyce said Qantas regretted the inconvenience caused by the dispute and by the grounding in particular.

“Now that no more industrial action can take place and the cloud of further strike action has lifted, we are 100 percent focused on what matters to customers, getting them to their destinations, safely, on time and in comfort, and in rewarding their loyalty to Qantas,” he said.

Further announcements will be made in relation to overseas- based customers and frequent fliers, the airline said.

Qantas’s offer is part of a bid to retain disgruntled passengers and defend its 90 percent share of the business market from rivals. Virgin Australia, the country’s second-biggest airline, carried an extra 30,000 travelers during the shutdown and that may help it win 20 percent of domestic business passengers before a 2014 goal, chief executive officer John Borghetti told Bloomberg TV last week.

Brisbane-based Virgin today began sales of business class seats on most of its domestic routes to help it win corporate and government travel from Qantas.

The grounding of Qantas’s fleet was the only alternative because the labour disputes were causing a slump in sales for the airline, Joyce told an Australian Senate Committee hearing on Nov 4. Weeks of sporadic strikes caused a “massive” collapse in corporate bookings in October, he said.

Fair Work Australia ordered an end to union actions, barred Qantas from staging a planned lock out and gave both sides 21 days to reach agreement.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said on Oct 31 the airline took an “extreme” approach by grounding its fleet. Australians and the tourism industry were “grossly inconvenienced by this high-handed ambush,” Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten said a day after the grounding.

Qantas engineers and baggage handlers have staged stoppages seeking higher pay and job-security measures. Long-haul pilots have also held protests in a bid to get the same employment conditions whether they fly for Qantas’s namesake carrier or planes from its budget arm Jetstar.

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