Asia-Pacific

Qantas dispute: Flights 'to stay grounded into Monday'

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Media captionAustralian PM Julia Gillard: 'The government is seeking to bring industrial action to an end'

Australian airline Qantas says all domestic and international flights will remain grounded until at least midday (01:00 GMT) on Monday, amid an unprecedented industrial dispute.

Australia's work tribunal is meeting and could order an end to the dispute.

Nearly 70,000 people have been affected by the cancellation of hundreds of flights in 22 countries.

Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the dispute between the airline and unions needed to be ended.

Australia's industrial tribunal, Fair Work Australia, has been hearing evidence from the airline, unions and government.

It was due to announce its decision at 01:00 local time on Monday (14:00 GMT on Sunday), but the statement has been delayed.

Earlier, a government lawyer said the shut-down was costing the Australian economy "tens of millions" of dollars every hour.

The tribunal can order an end or suspension to the industrial action, though it is not clear how quickly flights would resume.

Qantas said a decision would be made on Monday morning about afternoon flights, according to its Twitter feed.

The airline announced its decision to ground all flights on Saturday, saying it was a necessary reaction to a series of costly strikes and other industrial action, which the company said were costing A$15m ($16m) a week.

'Extortion'

On Sunday, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard urged an end to the row.

"I believe Australians want to see this dispute settled. I want to see this dispute settled and we have taken the appropriate action to bring this before the industrial umpire," she told a news conference from the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting (Chogm) being held in the western Australian city of Perth.

Correspondents say the situation is embarrassing for Mrs Gillard, as some of the leaders had been due to fly on Qantas planes.

Fair Work Australia can decide whether to order an end to industrial action by both unions and management.

"Hour by hour that goes by, there are potentially tens of millions of dollars of harm (being) done to the economy," AFP quoted Tom Howe, a government lawyer, as saying during the session.

Geoffrey Giudice, the tribunal president, said the situation should be settled urgently.

"We do need to bring this to a conclusion very soon and if it means we have to do it by extortion I will do it," Mr Giudice said.

Qantas Chief Executive Alan Joyce has made it clear flights will not resume unless the panel orders a termination of all industrial action.

He says an order to simply suspend it - as the unions are seeking - would not be good enough.

'Devastating'

A Qantas statement on Saturday said all employees involved in industrial action would be locked out from Monday evening and flights grounded from 0600 GMT on Saturday.

The announcement came after months of wrangling between the airline's management and unions.

Relations started deteriorating in August after the airline announced plans for restructuring and moving some operations to Asia.

Qantas has a 65% share of the domestic Australian market, but has been making heavy losses on its international flights.

The restructuring is expected to mean the loss of 1,000 jobs from its 35,000-strong workforce.

Pilots have been engaged in protracted talks with management over wages, conditions and outsourcing of jobs to Asia, but they have yet to walk off the job - unlike baggage handlers, engineers and ground staff.

Australian International Pilots Association (AIPA) vice-president Captain Richard Woodward said work stoppages were not in their plans.

"Pilots have made it clear from the start that we would not take industrial action that disrupts passengers. We have stuck to that to this day," he said.

"Alan Joyce, on the other hand, has opted to disrupt passengers in the most devastating way possible.

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