Almost a year ago I flew Qantas internationally. Mistake. The aircraft was old, the entertainment system completely non-functional, and the steward in my section was perfunctory (the adventure had died for him years before). When I pushed my seat back for sleep, it barely moved. There was nothing faulty about the seat. It's what you get on Qantas economy long-haul. A stiff neck and a zombie arrival.
I might have treated this as an aberration, a hazard of travelling long-haul economy class, but the experience turned out to be the beginning of the end of my years of loyalty to Qantas. It has since become obvious that Qantas staff, from the pilots down, regard passengers with contempt. Every time they are in dispute with management over pay and conditions, Qantas customers are used as cannon fodder.
It is worse than ever. The Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association has called for the public not to fly Qantas. This is the same union that waged an industrial campaign against Qantas for months in 2008 and has since provided a constant drip-feed of negative stories to the media about safety issues at Qantas. Given that engineers are responsible for safety, I am not flying Qantas.
Despite inbound tourism to Australia going into recession because of the high Australian dollar and natural disasters in Queensland, the engineers want a 15 per cent pay increase over the next three years. It would take average remuneration to $170,000. They also oppose any changes to work practices to improve productivity to offset the pay rises they want.
Three unions are engaging in a co-ordinated campaign of industrial guerilla tactics: the Australian and International Pilots Association, representing long-haul pilots; the licensed engineers; and the Transport Workers Union, representing baggage handlers and catering staff.
The long-haul A380 pilots are among the best paid in the industry.
According to Qantas they earn 50 per cent more than their peers at Virgin Australia and competing Asian carriers. The pilots are taking industrial action because they want their pay and conditions extended to Jetstar pilots.
The chief executive of Qantas, Alan Joyce, issuing an apology to customers on October 13, explained why management was digging in: ''These three unions want to be paid to do work that no longer exists due to the advent of new aircraft. They want to retain outdated work practices. They want to tell us what we can and can't change.
''Effectively they are trying to dictate how we run Qantas.''
I don't know who is providing strategic advice to Joyce and the Qantas board but announcing a $2 million pay rise for the chief executive, to $5 million a year, within a month of announcing 1000 staff layoffs was a corporate brain explosion. It's not the only misstep.
Even so, this is a fight the unions cannot afford to win. If they do get what they are demanding, Qantas will be following the path of Ansett Australia. Ten years ago, Ansett went bankrupt under the weight of high labour costs and financial overstretch. The ensuing years have not got less competitive.
There is no end in sight to this dispute. So far it has disrupted more than 60,000 passengers, hurt business operators large and small and is causing chaos to bookings across the travel industry.
The response of the federal government has been inertia. It has the power to stop the disruption under section 431 of the Fair Work Act 2009, which states the government can terminate industrial action if it becomes satisfied that ''the industrial action is threatening . . . to cause significant damage to the Australian economy or an important part of it''.
But the government has done nothing. It does not want to challenge the unions.
Nor is it a happy coincidence that the national secretary of the Transport Workers Union, Tony Sheldon, is running for the national presidency of the Labor Party.
As this process of industrial attrition grinds on, there has to be attrition in the loyalty of the ranks of Qantas frequent flyers, who would have to pay for these demands.
This year I've dropped my membership of the Qantas Club. My frequent flyer membership will default to the lowest level due to inactivity. I've stopped self-booking on the Qantas website. I now use travel sites looking for the best deal. I have 350,000 Qantas frequent-flyer points but will never again subject myself to the indignity of Qantas roulette in trying to use points to upgrade. Accessing business class seats on Qantas using points has proved to be impossible. So I am not renewing my Qantas-linked credit card because earning Qantas frequent flyer points no longer has any meaning to me.
On Thursday, I went to Canberra. Qantas wanted to charge me $308 round-trip, special advance purchase, plus a booking fee. After adding the cost of taxis to and from the airports, there'd be little change from $450. Instead, I took a long-distance coach for $56 round-trip. It was relaxing and punctual, and easy to read, phone and work on the way. For an extra hour each way, I saved almost $400 and avoided the hassles of airports. A lot of people seem to have caught on because the coach line is now running nine buses a day, each way, between Sydney and Canberra.
As I was leaving that Qantas international flight last December, the flight service director, who I'd not encountered on the flight, thanked me for the positive things I had recently written about Qantas and its staff.
Those were the days. Before the war.
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