By Scott Rochfort
March 30, 2004
Tensions between Qantas and its 4000 international flight attendants have risen sharply and are bound to worsen, amid growing talk the airline could face widespread industrial action if it pushes to increase the number of overseas-based cabin crew.
Qantas's enterprise bargaining agreement with its crew expires in December and the airline is keen to increase the maximum 370 overseas-based flight attendants it can employ. That cap was set with unions two years ago.
After establishing cabin crew bases in New Zealand and Thailand some four years ago, Qantas is now mulling over new crew bases, such as South Africa, in a bid to slash wages and cut the hotel and meal allowances expenses for crew rested in long-haul destinations.
The Flight Attendants Association says Thailand-based Qantas cabin crew members, for example, receive about one-quarter the wages of their Australian counterparts.
"If it was true that Qantas was proposing an expansion of overseas places or a lifting of the current cap of those flight attendants, the FAAA and its membership would view that with the gravest concern," said the head of the union's international division, Michael Mijatov.
The speculation was heightened by a hoax press release sent to the Herald last week from the airline's Inflight Services arm.
The "media release", claiming Qantas wanted to base 400-500 crew in London, may have been put out by a disgruntled airline employee or union official.
"It's so obviously phoney we're not going to comment," said Qantas public affairs manager Michael Sharp.
But with morale among Qantas flight attendants very low, there are concerns Qantas will use its new fleet of Airbus 330s as a major bargaining chip.
Despite commencing A330s training programs for its international cabin crew this month, it is understood Qantas might want more foreign crews on the A330s and may even seek different working conditions (ie, longer hours) or non-union Australian flight attendants on the planes.
But one major factor working in Qantas's favour are deep divisions within the FAAA. These were so serious that Qantas flight attendants at one point received two newsletters from rival union factions.
The union's Michael Mijatov claimed the rift was fixed last week, with the more militant arm of the union securing control. He said he was now attempting to soothe the divisions between the FAAA's international and domestic arms, which split last year during enterprise bargaining agreement discussions.
Meanwhile, Qantas and its 18 per cent shareholder British Airways will hold their joint annual board meeting today, amid talk the Flying Kangaroo may seek approval for its plans to set up or invest in a low-cost Singapore airline.
Speculation continued to circle around Valuair as a likely target. The airline is set to commence flights with its two A320s in early May.
There was talk last week that Qantas and Virgin Blue both considered taking a stake in the Malaysian airline AirAsia but Sir Richard Branson yesterday talked down the speculation.
"We talked to different airlines and I'm sure AirAsia would be one of the airlines that we'd be talking to. But whether we'll end up buying stakes in any airlines is undecided at this stage," he said.
I suppose its an interesting method of cost cutting to refuse to train your existing FA's on the new A333's Internationally and then use crews costing 1/4 of the current price to service them.