CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Tens of thousands of stranded Qantas Airways passengers worldwide scrambled to reach their destinations Sunday after the airline abruptly grounded its global fleet over a dispute with striking workers. Australia's government sought a court order to force the flagship carrier's planes back in the air.
Australian officials expressed frustration over the sudden action by the world's 10th-largest airline and asked an emergency arbitration hearing to order Qantas to fly in Australia's economic interests.
"It's not our place to start allocating responsibility, but what I also know is there is a better way to resolve these matters ... than locking your customers out," Australian Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten told reporters ahead of the arbitration hearing in the southern city of Melbourne. "We want more common sense than that."
About 70,000 passengers fly Qantas daily, and they were stuck trying to arrange alternatives when Qantas announced the immediate suspension Saturday to last until its unions reached agreements. More than 60 flights were in the air at the time and continued flying, but others were boarding passengers or even taxiing, forcing a return to the terminal so people could leave.
Qantas already had reduced and rescheduled flights for weeks after 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.
A court heard testimony Sunday in the second day of an emergency arbitration hearing called by the government.
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said the airline could be flying again within hours if the three arbitration judges rule to permanently terminate the grounding and the unions' strike action.
The unions want the judges to rule for a suspension so that the strikes can be resumed if their negotiations with the airline fail.
In testimony, Qantas executive Lyell Strambi said that suspending the staff lockout for three months could endanger aircraft safety.
He said crews could be distracted or angered by the risk to their future earnings of another lockout, which could cause fatigue and degrade personal performance.
"That could lead to conflicts in the cockpit — an array of things," Strambi told the tribunal.
"Action is suspended for a period of time, but the threat of action doesn't go away," Strambi said. "The genie is out of the bottle."
Qantas said 108 airplanes were being grounded at 22 airports, but did not say how many flights were involved. Among the stranded passengers are 17 world leaders attending a Commonwealth summit in the western Australian city of Perth, and the Australian government was helping to get them home.
Booked passengers were being rescheduled on a 24-hour basis, with Qantas handling any costs in transferring bookings to other airlines, said Qantas spokesman Tom Woodward.
Bookings already had collapsed after unions warned travelers to fly other airlines through the busy Christmas-New Year period.
Joyce said the unions' actions had created a crisis for Qantas.
"They are trashing our strategy and our brand," the chief executive said. "They are deliberately destabilizing the company, and there is no end in sight."
Union leaders criticized the action as extreme. Qantas is among the most profitable airlines in the world, but Joyce estimated that the grounding would cost the carrier $20 million a day.
The grounding of the largest of Australia's four national domestic airlines will take a major economic toll and could disrupt the national Parliament, due to resume in Canberra on Tuesday after a two-week recess. Qantas' budget subsidiary Jetstar continues to fly.
The aircraft will be grounded until unions representing pilots, mechanics, baggage handlers and caterers reach agreements with Qantas over pay and conditions, Joyce said. Staff will not be paid starting Monday.
"If the action continues as the unions have promised, we will have no choice but to close down Qantas part by part," Joyce said Saturday.
Richard Woodward, vice president of the pilots' union, accused Qantas of "holding a knife to the nation's throat" and said Joyce had "gone mad."
Steve Purvinas, federal secretary of the mechanics' union, described the grounding as "an extreme measure."
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.
Associated Press writers Christopher Weber in Los Angeles, Katie Oyan in Phoenix and Alex Kennedy in Singapore and AP Economics Writer Paul Wiseman in Washington contributed to this report.