Sydney: Tens of thousands of stranded passengers were on Sunday desperately hoping Australia's workplace regulator would end the grounding of Qantas Airways' entire fleet over a bitter industrial row.
The national carrier announced its shock decision to lock out union staff and cancel all flights indefinitely on Saturday, a move that left the country reeling and passengers scrambling for alternatives.
The travellers' fate lies in the hands of the regulator Fair Work Australia, which reconvened an emergency three-man panel Sunday and was still sitting late into the evening.
It could potentially suspend strike action for as long as 120 days so talks can take place, or order a permanent termination to the dispute and so permit Qantas to take to the skies again.
Regardless of what decision it might reach, Qantas said there would be no flights until at least noon tomorrow.
"Qantas fleet remains grounded until at least midday tomorrow. A decision on afternoon flights will be made tomorrow morning," it said on the social networking site Twitter.
After Prime Minister Julia Gillard took the rare step of ordering in the workplace mediator, a government lawyer told the tribunal the grounding was costing Australia's economy "tens of millions" of dollars each hour.
Gillard appeared to agree with Qantas that the row should be ended with "certainty".
"The government... is seeking to bring industrial action to an end and to have the dispute resolved so we can proceed with certainty with our iconic airline Qantas," she said in Perth.
Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said earlier he too was seeking certainty and that planes would fly again if the panel ordered a full termination of all industrial action.
"A termination stops the lockout," he said, adding that a mere suspension of the dispute was not good enough to settle a row tearing the 90-year-old airline apart.
Qantas said more than 68,000 passengers on 447 flights were affected by the grounding of 108 aircraft in 22 cities, with frustrated customers venting their anger at hubs from Europe to Asia and the US West Coast.
Shareholders are also expected to make their feelings known when the market opens tomorrow. CommSec chief equities economist Craig James said many would reach for the "sell" button, sending the Qantas stock price even lower.
Unions have been protesting against pay and restructuring plans that would see 1,000 jobs axed and the establishment of two new Qantas group airlines focused on
Joyce defended his extraordinary decision, aimed at ending three months of sporadic strikes by baggage handlers, pilots and engineers unions.
"We could not survive that way. The only solution for Qantas was to take our own industrial action," he said of the union lockout that forced the grounding of planes.
The decision was taken a day after an explosive annual general meeting where union anger was directed at management, including at a hefty pay rise awarded to Joyce.
The chief executive denied claims the grounding was pre-planned and said he was forced to bring the standoff to a head to tackle unions' "outrageous demands", with the airline losing Aus dollars 15 million (USD 16 million) per week.
But Tony Sheldon of the Transport Workers' Union, which represents ground staff, savaged Joyce's action, saying it was a pre-meditated ploy.
Pilots' union vice-president Captain Richard Woodward branded the grounding "insanity".
"(Joyce) held the passengers to ransom while he blackmailed the government and the people of Australia," he said, as his union threatened legal action against Qantas, warning that the lockout could be unlawful.
As both sides traded recriminations, passengers were cooling their heels in Australia as well as at Qantas hubs such as Hong Kong, Singapore, London and Los Angeles.
"This is completely unacceptable," said Michael Fung, a 57-year-old from Brisbane who was stranded in Hong Kong with his wife. "I won't fly in this airline anymore." he said.
First Published: Sunday, October 30, 2011, 19:00