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Ground crew, baggage handlers threaten strike action prompting fears of further delays at major Australian airports

By Ciara Jones
A man wearing shorts and sneakers wheeling a suitcase behind him.
Baggage handlers threaten strike action that could cause further delays for travellers.(ABC News: Keane Bourke)

Long queues, flight cancellations and baggage delays at major Australian airports could worsen, with "chronically overworked" ground crew threatening strike action over pay and working conditions.

The Transport Workers Union (TWU) said staff at global aviation company, Dnata, will apply to the Fair Work Commission today to hold a vote on industrial action.

The TWU claims the company is attempting to push through an "unpalatable" new work agreement that "gives pay cuts to experienced workers and below award minimum conditions".

Owned by Dubai-based airline Emirates, Dnata supplies aircraft ground handling, cargo and flight catering services for up to 20 airlines, including Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Etihad and Air Canada, at several major Australian airports.

It picked up low-cost contracts for ground work at Qantas after the airline axed some of its workforce at major Australian airports due to the pandemic.

People wearing masks and carrying bags line up in long queues
COVID-19 has been causing issues at airports for months.(ABC News: Tim Swanston)

Lodging an application means staff would be protected under the Fair Work Act if they vote in favour of industrial action, which would likely impact thousands of travellers at Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne airports.

The TWU said ground crew warned Dnata that "chronic understaffing, airport chaos and safety incidents" would get worse if the company didn't offer more secure jobs at higher rates.

It said there have been "several safety incidents" around Qantas aircraft recently, including "belt loaders crashing into planes, locking pins left in landing gear and incorrect weight information given to pilots before take-off."

Qantas baggage handlers load bags onto a domestic Qantas jet
The company also runs ground work for Qantas after it axed some of its workforce due to the pandemic.(Giulio Saggin: ABC News)

TWU National Secretary Michael Kaine said while industrial action was a "last resort", there was no other option.

"While rosters are severely understaffed, the most experienced workers are facing pay cuts while conditions are below award minimums."

The TWU is calling for an independent tribunal to examine structural issues within the aviation sector.

Airport queue Monday
Massive queues seen outside Sydney airport on Monday caused by fog.(Instagram: @drewboyweston)

Australian airports have been under severe strain in recent weeks with long queues, flight cancellations and lost luggage, due to COVID and influenza-related staff shortages, weather disruptions and pent-up travel demand.

Heavy fog caused massive queues through security and flight delays at Sydney Airport yesterday, with travellers waiting in lines stretching outside the terminal. 

Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne Airports have been contacted for comment.