Qantas Airways and union workers met Monday for their first negotiating session since the Australian airline grounded its entire fleet late last month over a bitter labor dispute.
Meanwhile, Qantas attempted to win back thousands of angry customers who were stranded by the grounding by offering them free flights.
Qantas and the unions have been fighting for months, with workers worried that a new airline restructuring plan will cost them their jobs. The unions staged months of rolling strikes, forcing the cancellation of 600 flights, and prompting fed-up airline executives to halt all flights on Oct. 29 and initiate an employee lockout. The move stranded tens of thousands of passengers across the globe, and furious Australian government officials ordered an emergency court hearing to end the dispute and get flights back in the air.
On Oct. 31, the court ordered the airline to end the employee lockout, told the unions to stop their strikes, and ordered both sides to come to an agreement within 21 days _ or else they will be forced into binding arbitration.
Both sides were back at the negotiating table Monday for the first time since the drama unfolded. Steve Purvinas, secretary of the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association, said another negotiating session was scheduled for Thursday.
"By today (Monday), we'll know whether Qantas are interested in negotiating an outcome or whether they'll continue to stonewall _ which has been the case up until now," Purvinas said.
Job security is at the heart of the dispute. Qantas angered unions in August when it said it would boost its weak overseas business by creating an Asia-based airline with its own name and brand. The five-year restructure plan is expected to cost 1,000 jobs.
"We are committed to the negotiations ... and believe that we should be able to reach an agreement within the 21-day period," a Qantas spokesman said Monday on customary condition of anonymity.
Qantas, the world's 10th-largest airline by passenger miles, faced blistering criticism from the thousands of passengers stranded during the two-day grounding. On Sunday, the airline announced it would give those customers free tickets for domestic flights in Australia or from Australia to New Zealand. Offers for overseas customers and frequent fliers will be announced later, the airline said.
"We deeply regret the inconvenience caused over recent months and last weekend in particular _ however, we are excited about the short and long-term future for Qantas," airline CEO Alan Joyce said in a statement.