Monday, April 15, 2024

Qantas pilots strike in WA as CEO Vanessa Hudson faces first test

Qantas CEO Vanessa Hudson is facing her first major test as pilots from the Australian Federation of Airline Pilots (AFAP), employed at Qantas’ subsidiaries Network Aviation (NA) and QantasLink in Western Australia, begin an unprecedented six-day strike. The federation added three more days to an existing strike on Tuesday night that started at midnight. It’s the second strike in a week, after a one-day stoppage last week that saw 35 flights cancelled; Qantas was also forced to cancel east coast flights to bring in aircraft, and to pay Virgin and other charter operators to step in.

The strike comes as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission issued its latest industry monitoring report that showed that about 5% of flights were cancelled in December, more than double the long-term monthly average. Only 63.6% of flights arrived on time during the month, well below the long-term average of 81.1%.

The industrial action comes after three enterprise bargaining agreements (EBAs) were voted down by pilots, which surprised even union bosses. AFAP said that Network Aviation pilots are the worst paid in the Qantas group and are denied basic conditions that other pilots across the group get — such as 10 rostered days off, the same allowances, and protection from early shifts after leave. They have not had a pay rise since 2019.

“Qantas management has angered our network members by walking away from negotiations and taking previously agreed items off the bargaining table last week,” AFAP senior industrial officer Chris Aikens told Crikey. “Qantas needs to recognise that our pilots are only seeking the terms and conditions of employment that all other Qantas pilots and the airline industry overall [have access to].”

Crikey has learnt that the AFAP on Tuesday issued a survey about confidence in management, chief pilot Evan Bartlett (the target of much ire from other pilots) and workplace conditions. Any official vote of no confidence in the chief pilot, which is a regulatory position, would force the sleepy airline regulator CASA to get involved. The results of the survey are expected to be damning.

“They have pushed everything to the limit, there is a toxic workplace culture of blame and bullying,” one pilot told Crikey. Many others raised safety issues, such as tired pilots who are angry and frustrated from early mornings and late nights.

“We are operating aircraft [in] remote locations with no support. In many places there is no traffic control or radar, some runways are short and marginal, and there is inaccurate weather reporting,” another pilot said. 

Meanwhile senior pilots are leaving, and the Qantas subsidiaries could shortly be forced to bring cadets with under 500 hours of training into cockpits. There is a worldwide pilot shortage, with Emirates, Cathay Pacific, Japan’s ANA as well as US freight carriers such as Atlas actively recruiting in Australia and offering significantly higher wages and conditions.

The pitched industrial battle is all too reminiscent of the attitude of previous management to pilots, engineers and cabin crew. It has also disguised what seems to be Qantas’ real plans for its WA subsidiaries — to become a second (very) low-cost carrier that will slowly take over many of the routes now flown by the far more costly 737 fleet.

NA has purchased nine A319s, very similar single-aisle jets to 737s, from US low-cost carrier Spirit, saving them from the scrapyards, pilots said. The first has arrived and is almost 19 years old. The rest are expected to arrive during the year. Crikey understands Qantas is planning for the planes to take over interstate domestic routes (Adelaide, Hobart, Gold Coast) as well as short-haul international routes such as Perth-Bali — all while its crews remain the lowest paid in the group. 

In any case, Hudson’s industrial problems are only beginning, as the company is now in talks with unions about the mainline short-haul pilots’ EBA due in coming months. As one pilot said: “If she offers 9% people will wonder what she is smoking,” but if she “rolls over to Network then she will be beholden to all the pilots in the group”.

By way of comparison, troubled Southwest Airlines in the US just inked a deal with pilots for a 30% pay rise with a further 12% over the next three years. 

Elsewhere, Crikey has learnt that Hudson has brought Boston Consulting Group (BCG) back to Qantas Loyalty, following a previous failure there. It’s her third lot of consultants since she started the job six months ago. The previous hire McKinsey was to help her get the planes running on time. BCG was also called in immediately on her appointment to improve the company’s image — and we all know how that’s going.

Expect more turbulence in a Qantas group cockpit near you.

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