SYDNEY, April 5, 2011 (AFP) - Australian airline Qantas on Tuesday admitted it had been sending managers offshore for baggage handling and other training as thousands of ground staff, engineers and pilots threaten to strike over pay.
Qantas is facing a walk-out of about 9,000 employees over a dispute with the influential Transport Workers' Union (TWU) about cheap contract workers, wages and superannuation and job security.
Chief executive Alan Joyce said he was hopeful that negotiations would succeed, describing strikes as a "last resort".
But Qantas confirmed media reports that it had been training senior staff in readiness for industrial action.
"Qantas has sent staff to Los Angeles airport for over 10 years to undergo contingency training for baggage handling and check-in operations," the carrier said in a statement.
"This type of contingency measure is important to ensure our passengers can continue to fly as normal in the event of union-led strikes."
The airline added that it had been forced to use such contingencies against wildcat strikes in the past and that its "priority is to protect our business and ensure that our customers are not disrupted".
TWU secretary Tony Sheldon said the strike-busting training was "immoral and un-Australian" and accused Qantas of seeing its 35,000-strong workforce as a "disposable commodity rather than an asset".
"This is not a contingency plan for industrial action -- it can only be read as Qantas making a deliberate attack on its workforce, and it should be exposed for what it truly is," said Sheldon.
Joyce said he had worked as a check-in operator during a previous strike in 2006 and using management to fill ground handling jobs was one of "various mechanisms that we can use to try and... keep the operation going".
"But I'm hoping that we will not ever get there, contingencies and getting into industrial action is the last resort," he told ABC television.
Qantas last week said it would slash capacity and jobs and retire some aircraft due to cost pressures from steep oil prices and natural disasters in Australia, Japan and New Zealand.
The cuts came just weeks after the airline posted a four-fold increase in net profits to Aus$241 million ($249 million) for the six months to December 2010 and promised "materially stronger" pre-tax annual profits than in 2010.