Engineers stand up to Qantas

Issue 

Professional engineers at Qantas, members of the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers, Australia (APESMA), remain locked in combat with the airline after almost a year of negotiations over a new work agreement.

The engineers' dispute stepped up several notches over the Easter holidays, when they voted to extend overtime bans in place since November 2009. The action coincided with a series of safety incidents on various aircraft — a cracked windscreen, blown-out front tyres and mechanical problems that forced two flights to return to their airport of departure.

Qantas could easily meet the 190 engineers' demands, which centre on pay and adequate rest time between shifts.

However, any breakthrough by the engineers would encourage the companies' pilots, flight attendants and other maintenance staff to try to recover pay and conditions lost during their last bargaining rounds. These took place in 2008, when Qantas successfully imposed a 3% annual wage increase when inflation was running at 4%.

This setback was followed by job cuts of more than 3000 (about 10% of the workforce) and the failed "management buyout" of 2009. The buyout exposed that the senior management, led by former CEO Geoff Dixon, was obsessed most of all with fattening the airline for sale as a financial asset.

The professional engineers' campaign enjoys overwhelming support — 99.2% of members voted to support protected industrial action against Qantas in November.

This is easy to understand. Not only are the engineers legally liable for their work, having to sign off on any important maintenance done before an aircraft can fly. They have also increasingly been required to respond to complex engineering problems with less than five hours rest between shifts.

For its part, Qantas has been passing the work banned by the engineers over to management staff.

APESMA senior industrial officer Alison Rose said on March 29: "It defies belief that managers who have little hands-on experience in recent years could be brought in to verify complex engineering work, including signing off on aircraft types they are unfamiliar with [like the Airbus A380 superjumbo]."

It's a sign of Qantas management's fear of being found out compromising safety that it has refused to share information with the engineers about problems encountered during the overtime hours subject to union bans.

APESMA has called on the Civil Aviation Safety Authority to conduct a full investigation into the revelations that "inexperienced, secretive managers have reduced safety margins and increased risks to passengers".

As Ralf Schumann, a Qantas "shareholder, frequent flyer member and staunch supporter of our national carrier" commented on the ABC News website: "This debacle shows once again there is no sense in throwing decades of sound earnings at greedy shareholders and perks for self-inflated execs, while cutting down the most valuable assets the airline had: dedicated staff, sound engineering and a reputations as solid as Ayers Rock."