Air travel under pressure this holiday season as crews threaten strike action

Busy Melbourne airport

Australia’s aviation industry is facing a daunting holiday season as potential strikes, staff shortages and cancelled routes reveal a bleak portrait of the upcoming peak period.

Virgin cabin crew members of the Flight Attendants Association of Australia (FAAA) and the Transport Workers Union (TWU) have voted to take industrial action “as an absolute last resort” if Virgin Australia doesn’t agree to pay increases and working condition changes.

Nick McIntosh from the TWU said cabin crews have copped years of wage freezes since Virgin went into administration.

“During the pandemic, when the company was in administration, they cut many of their conditions at that time to get the company through,” Mr Mcintosh said.

A man with a blue button up shirt looks at a desk.
Nick McIntosh from the TWU said cabin crews have copped years of wage freezes. (ABC News: Daniel Irvine)

But since the company recently returned a profit of $129 million, the unions say workers want to see their wages increase. 

Teri O’Toole, the federal secretary of the FAAA, said the members are asking for a 10 per cent pay rise this year, and 3.5 per cent for the years following.

“They’re simply saying, we need our wages to go up with the cost of living,” Ms O’Toole said.

A Virgin Australia spokesperson said the unions were asking for “a patently excessive set of claims”.

“In the last financial year, cabin crew received a minimum of 9 per cent to 13 per cent of their base salary through a combination of EA and Award driven wage increases,” they said.

A row of Virgin Australia aircraft grounded at on airport after the company went into voluntary administration in April 2020.
A Virgin Australia spokesperson said unions were asking for “a patently excessive set of claims”. (ABC News: John Gunn)

Mr McIntosh said these pay increases had to be made because their “wages had fallen behind the minimum rates of pay in aviation in this country”.

The group of around 2000 cabin crew are also asking for a reduction in hourly duties.

“Right now, they do 12 to 14 hours and they do not get a meal break,” Ms O’Toole said.

What would the strikes look like?

The workforce of Virgin union members – which make up about 98 per cent of crew members – have voted for 15-minute, 30-minute, and 24-hour stoppages during the holiday season.

“If you have a very large percentage of a workforce like cabin crew electing to withdraw their labour, then that’s going to have a significant impact,” Mr McIntosh said.

A long line of people stand with their luggage in a queue inside a terminal in London.
Unions have warned that stoppages could have a significant impact. (Reuters: Henry Nicholls)

The FAAA and the TWU are meeting with the Fair Work Commission for the first time on Friday.

“By next week, we should have a better understanding of what action, if any, is going to be necessary,” Ms O’Toole said.

“Let’s cross fingers that the Christmas spirit is there, and that Virgin and Bain [Capital] come to the table with a better offer.”

Mr McIntosh said they’ve been in negotiations with Virgin for six months.

COVID-era staff changes still being felt

Mr McIntosh said that if recent peak periods are anything to go by, this holiday season will be tricky.

“We’ve been short of security screeners, we’ve been short of baggage handlers, all those key, front-facing areas,” he said.

He said the industry was still scrambling to replace talent lost during the pandemic.

“Qantas is still reeling from their decision to illegally sack 1700 baggage handlers during the height of the pandemic,” Mr McIntosh said.

During the pandemic, Virgin laid off about 3000 staff, and Qantas about 6000.

Bonza cancels flight routes ahead of Christmas travel season

Last week, budget airline Bonza chief executive Tim Jordan said that approval delays meant some routes in and out of the Gold Coast had been cancelled for the holiday season.

These include flights to Melbourne and Darwin.

“We are acutely aware of the impact this has on our customers, and we are very sorry for this,” Mr Jordan said.

About 1600 customers have been impacted by the Darwin flight cancellations. Bonza couldn’t say how many have had their flights cancelled due to the delay of the Melbourne route.

“You’re not going to solve staff shortages and the way customers are treated by just hoping that, somehow, it’ll all get better,” Mr McIntosh said.

“I think it just goes to show the state of aviation in this country.”

2020 Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.
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