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From the Archives, 1989: Chaos as Australia’s domestic pilots resign en masse

Before the resignations – submitted by the Australian Federation of Air Pilots – Ansett, Australian Airlines, East-West and Ipec started sacking pilots and issued writs against 50 individual pilots seeking damages for breach of contract.

The Prime Minister, Mr Hawke, last night left open the possibility of airlines recruiting foreign pilots to replace local crews. He said that if Australian pilots decided to find work overseas, “it would be appropriate” to bring in foreign pilots.

The resignations mean potential payouts of about $400 million from the airlines’ superannuation funds. Ansett’s fund, managed by the AMP Society, faces a payout of $250 million; the Australian Airlines pilots’ super fund, run by the Commonwealth Bank, faces payouts of about $150 million.

Ansett is considering legal action which, if successful, would reduce its pilots’ superannuation payout. The airline, in writs issued to Ansett pilots, says it is “considering its obligations in regard of the misconduct provisions of the (superannuation) deed”.

Speaking on ABC Radio last night, the chief executive of Australian Airlines, Mr James Strong, said the company’s superannuation fund was fully funded and the resignation of its 600 pilots would not put financial pressure on the company.

Pilots demonstrate at Brisbane Airport.

Pilots demonstrate at Brisbane Airport.Credit:Peter Henderson

In a statement issued late last night, Mr Strong said: “The assets of the superannuation fund are well in excess of that required to meet all its obligations.”

It is believed that the airlines have reached an agreement with the ACTU to stand down many of their 21,000 employees if the dispute lasts much longer.

In talks with the ACTU yesterday, airlines said they would keep their remaining employees – baggage handlers, refuellers and flight attendants – for the immediate future. But if the airlines’ 75 aircraft are grounded for more than a few days they will seek stand-down orders from the Industrial relations Commission.

Fourteen international airlines have agreed to carry domestic passengers. But the Federal Government’s contingency plan for a skeleton domestic service hit trouble when the RAAF was unable to contribute any aircraft.

The Minister for Transport, Mr Willis, said the RAAF would begin carrying domestic passengers on flights between larger cities today, despite a decision by the Transport Workers Union to refuse to refuel them.

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He said RAAF aircraft would fly between Sydney, Perth and Melbourne, to the north Queensland coast, and between Melbourne and Tasmania. The planes, including Hercules transports and a Boeing 707, will refuel at air bases.

Mr Willis said the pilots’ mass resignation was “a rather kamikaze act” that would not help them win the dispute. “I think the pilots have bitten off an awful lot more than they intended to bite off, and far more than they can possibly chew.”

Despite pressure from Mr Willis, Qantas pilots continued to refuse to carry domestic passengers except on compassionate grounds.

The president of the Federation of Air Pilots, Captain Brian McCarthy, said Mr Hawke’s comments about the pilots earlier this week had hardened their attitudes. “I just wish he hadn’t said anything, and I wish a whole lot of other people hadn’t.” Mr Hawke said this week that pilots were trying to glorify themselves, and that bus drivers had as much responsibility.

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Captain McCarthy said the pilots would not work until they could negotiate with the companies for their 24.7 percent claim.

The executive director of the pilots’ federation, Mr Terry O’Connell, said large numbers of pilots would accept lucrative offers to fly for international airlines. The domestic airlines had already spoken to some senior pilots, offering them rises to return. But he said he was confident that no pilot would go back.

Pilot sources, however, said there were fears among federation members that the dispute had got out of hand. Some pilots, though not necessarily a majority, wanted a secret ballot.

The Minister for Industrial relations, Mr Morris, called on pilots to reconsider “before it’s too late.”

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The Government, which said on Wednesday that up to 36 overseas airlines could take on stranded passengers, disclosed yesterday that 14 out of 16 airlines that fly domestic sectors have agreed to help. Those that have refused are Air Niugini and Garuda.

International Support Pledged

The International Federation of Air Line Pilots Association entered the row over Australia’s domestic pilots’ strike by calling on its members to thwart plans by international carriers to help out on domestic routes.

A spokesman said: “Our members are not at all happy to be put in the position of strikebreakers.”

Asked if the federation wanted no international airlines to fly the Australian domestic routes, an executive said: “That would be out hope”.

The 70,000 member federation said it fully supported the Australian Federation of Air Pilots “in the actions being taken by it to secure the right to negotiate directly with the airlines on pay and working conditions without further reference to a government appointed overseer”.

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