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Qantas grounds planes worldwide in labor dispute

The action has snarled travel for tens of thousands of passengers, including some at Los Angeles International Airport, where Qantas has 34 departures a week.

October 30, 2011|By David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times
  • "My wife is pregnant. So I want to get home to her," said Qantas passenger Richie Gallacher of Australia at Los Angeles International Airport.
"My wife is pregnant. So I want to get home to her," said Qantas… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

Australia-based Qantas Airways grounded aircraft around the globe Saturday in an intensifying labor dispute that has disrupted travel for tens of thousands of international passengers, including those scrambling for new flights at LAX.

The company's domestic and international departures were canceled after Qantas announced that it had locked out workers represented by three of its employee unions, including those that represent pilots and baggage handlers.

Qantas advised its customers not to go to the airport until further notice and said a full refund would be available to customers who cancel their flights. "Qantas regrets that this action has become necessary and apologizes sincerely to all affected passengers," the company said in a statement.

One of those caught in the lurch was Richie Gallacher of Melbourne, Australia, who was at Los Angeles International Airport after celebrating his cousin's 40th birthday in Las Vegas. Gallacher, 31, said he had spent four hours at the airport trying to sort out his travel situation when he finally received a text message from Qantas about the flight cancellations.

"It's very disorganized," said Gallacher, who was anxious to return to his pregnant wife — and ultimately found a flight with Singapore Airlines. "The big fat cats need to look at themselves, because obviously they showed no respect for their customers."

Qantas representatives did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment. On its Twitter account, the company said it was experiencing "extremely high call volumes."

Qantas has 34 departures a week from LAX, serving 880,000 passengers at the airport between January and September. LAX officials said Qantas' decision would ground nine of the company's aircraft at LAX, including six 747s and one A380.

"I think it's significant for us," said Gina Marie Lindsey, executive director of Los Angeles World Airports. "Qantas is a major customer of ours. Whenever disruption occurs for a major business customer, we feel their pain."

When it first went into service at LAX in 2008, Qantas' double-decker A380 was greeted enthusiastically by Los Angeles officials, who sought to stay competitive in international travel. The airport agency is building a $1.5-billion international terminal to accommodate those oversized jets, which are the world's largest commercial aircraft.

Four Qantas flights that were scheduled to leave LAX were canceled Saturday, said airport spokeswoman Diana Sanchez. Adding to the disruption, Air France canceled one of its flights out of LAX because of a separate labor dispute. Ten other flights were delayed because of snowy winter weather on the East Coast.

Qantas' decision is expected to cost it more than $21 million a day. It was the latest move in a protracted labor dispute that has affected 70,000 passengers and led to the cancellation of 600 flights, the company said.

Qantas said the lockout would continue until negotiators with the Transport Workers Union, the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Assn. and the Australian and International Pilots Assn. dropped "extreme demands that have made it impossible for agreements to be reached."

Labor leaders reacted angrily. The pilots union called Qantas' actions unnecessary and irresponsible and said the decision to ground the company's entire fleet was "nothing short of a maniacal overreaction."

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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