Qantas could not have prevented the stand-down of over 400 maintenance workers during the COVID pandemic, a court has ruled as the airline scored a legal win over a union.
The Federal Court on Tuesday ruled the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association (ALAEA) was “disingenuous” after it argued the airline should be held responsible for the decision to stand down staff after its business was hammered by border closures and movement restrictions.
Qantas was seeking a declaration that it could not have “reasonably” prevented or be held responsible for the decision to stand down 333 Qantas and 113 Jetstar maintenance engineers for one month earlier in the year.
They were stood down at the time around 20,000 other employees including pilots, cabin crew and ground staff were also stood down.
The airline argued during a hearing last month it would have faced severe financial hardship had it continued to operate with a full workforce and it would have prevented them from resuming at full capacity once the pandemic does subside.
The national carrier’s barrister Rowena Orr QC told the court that if they continued to operate, the company would have extinguished its cash reserves and gone broke in eight to 10 weeks.
Justice Geoffrey Flick ruled Qantas could not be held responsible for the downturn in travel and passenger numbers, which limited its ability to operate.
“Given the substantial downturn in passenger flights, there was no other option ‘reasonably’ open for Qantas or Jetstar to pursue.
“Neither Qantas nor Jetstar could obviously be held responsible for the downturn in international and domestic air travel and neither Qantas nor Jetstar could ‘reasonably’ have prevented the stoppage of work which occurred.”
Qantas in a statement described the legal proceedings as “vexatious” and accused the union of wasting their members’ money.
“This is a victory for common sense,” the company said.
“The union’s argument that Qantas should be flying empty planes in the middle of a pandemic was ridiculous. It would have put the future of the company and thousands of jobs at risk.
“Standing down our workers as travel demand collapsed due to factors outside of our control wasn’t a decision we took lightly. We did it because the alternative would have been to burn cash and put the whole company at risk.”
According to its enterprise agreement, the airline was able to stand down any worker who could not be usefully employed because of a stoppage that it could not reasonably prevent.
However, the union challenged the stand-down, saying it was in the airline’s control to continue flying.
ALAEA barrister Lucy Saunders said the measures were taken to “protect their viability” and “improving their profitability”, despite noting the substantial decline in customers.
However, Justice Flick said the stand down was “a necessity forced upon them”.
“It is, with respect, disingenuous to suggest that the action taken by the airlines was action within their ‘own volition’,” Justice Flick said.