- Associated Press - Saturday, October 29, 2011

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Qantas Airways grounded its global fleet Saturday, suddenly locking out striking workers after weeks of disruptions an executive said could close down the world’s 10th largest airline piece by piece.

Australia's government called an emergency arbitration hearing that lasted nearly two hours before the judges adjourned it to issue a decision later Saturday night.

At least 60 Qantas flights were in the air and continued to their destinations, and at least one taxiing flight stopped on the runway, a flier said. Among the stranded passengers are the 17 world leaders attending a Commonwealth summit in the western city of Perth.

When the grounding was announced, 36 international and 28 domestic Australian flights were in the air, said a Qantas spokeswoman, who declined to be named citing company policy.

She could not confirm an Australian Broadcasting Corp. television report that 13,305 passengers were booked to fly Qantas international flights within 24 hours of the grounding.

Brothers Kevin and Chris Crulley, sit on the floor at the Qantas check-in counter at Sydney Airport in Sydney, Saturday, Oct. 29, 2011, after they were removed from their flight home to England. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
Brothers Kevin and Chris Crulley, sit on the floor at the Qantas ... more >

Bookings already had collapsed after unions warned travelers to book with other airlines through the busy Christmas-New Year period. Booked passengers were being rescheduled at Qantas‘ expense, chief executive Alan Joyce said.

He told a news conference in Sydney the unions’ actions have caused a crisis for Qantas.

“They are trashing our strategy and our brand,” Joyce said. “They are deliberately destabilizing the company and there is no end in sight.”

Union leaders criticized the action as extreme. Qantas is the world’s 10th largest airline and among the most profitable, but its unions have been striking and rejecting overtime out of worry a restructuring plan would be a means to move some of Qantas‘ 35,000 jobs overseas.

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.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said her government would help the Commonwealth leaders fly home after 17 were due to fly out of Perth on Qantas planes over the next couple of days.

“They took it in good spirits when I briefed them about it,” Gillard told reporters.

British tourist Chris Crulley, 25, said the pilot on his Qantas flight informed passengers while taxiing down a Sydney runway that he had to return to the terminal “to take an important phone call.” The flight was then grounded.

“We’re all set for the flight and settled in and the next thing — I’m stunned. We’re getting back off the plane,” the firefighter told The Associated Press from Sydney Airport by phone.

Crulley was happy to be heading home to Newcastle after a five-week vacation when his flight was interrupted. “I’ve got to get back to the other side of the world by Wednesday for work. It’s a nightmare,” he added.

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