(Refiles to correct spelling of “Derby Day”)
By Rebekah Kebede
PERTH, Australia, Oct 29 (Reuters) - Australian airline Qantas left tens of thousands of passengers and nearly 20 world leaders in a lurch on Saturday after it grounded its entire fleet due to an bitter dispute with airline unions.
Travellers in Australia and at regional hubs such as Singapore and Hong Kong were fuming as their travel plans were derailed and they were left without luggage and scrambling to book other flights.
“It just comes across really badly, I’m proudly Australian but it just leaves a really bad taste in your mouth,” Zoe Johnson, an Australian living in Switzerland said at Perth airport.
“So many so people say, ‘I’m never going to fly Qantas again,’ and from my point of view its just feels like a kind of bullying tactic really.”
Qantas’ decision comes at an inopportune time— the west Australian city of Perth is hosting the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Perth and 17 heads of government could be marooned in the remote city.
This weekend is also one of the Australia’s busiest travel weekends, with tens of thousands making their way to the Melbourne Cup horse race on Tuesday, dubbed “the race that stops the nation.”
Horse-racing gamblers returning from the country’s second biggest horse-racing event, Derby Day in Melbourne, were also met with the news that their flights were cancelled.
The stoppage came as a shock to most travellers and even to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s government, who appeared to be blindsided by the cancellation and filed an application to block Qantas and the unions.
“The only information we are getting right now is from our kids back home,” Christine Joske, whose flight to Melbourne was cancelled, said at the Hong Kong airport.
Qantas gave a notice to customers saying it would provide for accommodation, meals, and transfers, as well as reimbursement for cancelled flights.
The company told customers to check for updates on Qantas’ Facebook page, which was inundated with hundreds of comments, many of them berating the company’s chief executive, Alan Joyce and criticizing the company decision to stop flights. (Additional reporting by Rebekah Kebede and Jill Gralow in PERTH, Nishant Kumar in Hong Kong, Kevin Lim in Singapore)