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Aussie Court Ends Qantas Strike, Fleet Grounding

Qantas planes could be flying again within hours after Australia's labor relations tribunal ruled n favor of the carrier over the labor dispute that's seen the company ground its entire fleet.

Fair Work Australia ordered the three unions in contract negotiations with Qantas to terminate all of their rolling work stoppages and other industrial action that have been going on for months. That's the outcome that Qantas hoped for and the government wanted when it referred the dispute to the labor relations board.

Australian Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten said he now expects both sides to work to get the airline flying again.

"We are pleased that after 24 hours of turmoil, common sense will be restored to the aviation, tourism sectors of Australia," he said.

Qantas will now have to be recertified by the government as safe to fly again, a process that should take just a few hours. It could be back in the air as early as Monday evening local time.

About 70,000 passengers fly Qantas daily, and would-be fliers this weekend were stuck at home, hotels, airports or even had to suddenly deplane when Qantas suspended operations Saturday. More than 60 flights were in the air at the time but flew to their destinations, and Qantas was paying for passengers to book other flights.

Qantas had reduced and rescheduled flights for weeks as union workers struck and refused to work overtime out of worries that a restructuring plan would move some of Qantas' 35,000 jobs overseas.

German tourist Michael Messmann was trying to find a way home from Singapore on Sunday. He and his wife spent five weeks traveling around Australia but found their connecting flight home to Frankfurt suddenly canceled.

"I don't know the details of the dispute, but it seems like a severe reaction by the airline to shut down all their flights. That seems a bit extreme," said Messmann, 68. "After five weeks of traveling, we just want to go home."

Australian business traveler Graeme Yeatman sided with the airline, even though he was also trying to find a new flight home to Sydney on Sunday after his flight was canceled.

"I think the unions have too much power over Qantas. Even though this is an inconvenience for me, I'm glad the airline is drawing a line in the sand," said Yeatman, 41.

The government's lawyer Tom Howe submitted to the court that the lockout and strikes should be terminated or at least suspended for four months.

He said a suspension was only a temporary solution to a dispute that threatened significant economic damage to Australia's tourism and aviation industries.

"That temporariness necessarily allows the real possibility, indeed, the likelihood that at the end of the suspension period, there may be a reinstatement of the lockout which, on the evidence before the tribunal, would inevitably lead to the risk, if not likelihood, of significant damage to an important sector of the Australian economy," Howe told the judges.

Another Qantas executive Vanessa Hudson testified that the airline's forward bookings had collapsed after 70,000 passengers had had their flights disrupted by unions' rolling four-hour strikes in recent weeks. She said a permanent order would give customers enough certainty to book Qantas flights.

"As long as there's the continued threat that industrial activity could return, I think that it will be impacting consumers' decisions about which airline they choose to fly," she said.

Qantas said 108 airplanes were grounded but did not say how many flights were involved. Among the stranded passengers are 17 world leaders attending a Commonwealth summit in Perth, and the Australian government was helping to get them home.

Qantas is among the most profitable airlines in the world, but he estimated the grounding would cost the carrier $20 million a day.

Qantas infuriated unions in August when it said it would improve its loss-making overseas business by creating an Asia-based airline with its own name and brand. The five-year restructure plan will cost 1,000 jobs. Qantas said in August it had more than doubled annual profit to AU$250 million but warned that the business environment was too challenging to forecast earnings for the current fiscal year.

Stuart Cohen contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associates Press

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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