Qantas planes are set to fly again later today after Australia's workplace mediator ordered an end to a bitter industrial dispute that saw the carrier ground its entire fleet.

The decision will bring relief to tens of thousands of stranded passengers left in limbo since the airline locked out staff and cancelled all flights indefinitely on Saturday.

"We have decided to terminate protected industrial action in relation to each of the proposed enterprise agreements immediately,'' Fair Work Australia said after a marathon meeting that ended early in the morning.

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said aircraft could be back in the air by this afternoon.


"We will be getting our aircraft back up in the air as soon as we possibly can. It could be as early as Monday afternoon on a limited schedule with the approval of the regulator,'' he said.

"I apologise to all Qantas passengers that have been impacted by the industrial action by unions over the past few months and in particular the past few days.''

Justice Geoffrey Giudice, part of the industrial umpire panel, said the decision allowed for further negotiations between Qantas and unions for 21 days to try and hammer out their differences.

Fair Work Australia could have opted to suspend strike action for as long as 120 days so talks could take place, a move favoured by unions, but instead came down in favour of Qantas who wanted permanent termination.

It said the dispute needed to end immediately to protect the tourism industry, which has been hit hard.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard took the rare step of ordering in the workplace mediator and, like Qantas, favoured a quick resolution.

"The government... is seeking to bring industrial action to an end and to have the dispute resolved so we can proceed with certainty with our iconic airline Qantas,'' she said in Perth Sunday.

Qantas said nearly 70,000 passengers on 447 flights were affected by the grounding of 108 aircraft in 22 cities, with frustrated customers venting their anger at hubs from Europe to Asia and the US West Coast.


Air New Zealand takes overflow

Air New Zealand has been working with alliance partner Virgin to allow the Australian company to help some stranded passengers.

Australasia general manager Bruce Parton said Air New Zealand was working to free up six to eight aircraft and was organising cover for baggage-handling duties, which are covered by Qantas.

Mr Parton said putting on extra Air New Zealand planes would allow its partner Virgin to divert aircraft to Australian domestic routes in a bid to limit disruption ahead of Tuesday's Melbourne Cup.

Mr Parton flew to Sydney yesterday afternoon to work on contingency plans. He said the airport's Qantas check-in area was "utter chaos''.

"It's 20 feet deep with people screaming and yelling. There's a lot of anger and angst, the customers are pretty unhappy with how they've been treated.

"When I'm talking to the Qantas customers, what they're staggered with is the speed at which this was bought in. No one got any warning ... They just feel like they've been treated with disdain.''

He said people he'd talked to would remember the incident, and there would be long-term damage to the Qantas brand.

The dispute

Unions have been protesting against pay and restructuring plans that would see 1,000 jobs axed and the establishment of two new Qantas group airlines focused on Asia.

Joyce defended his extraordinary decision to ground flights, which was aimed at ending three months of sporadic strikes by baggage handlers, pilots and engineers unions.

"We could not survive that way. The only solution for Qantas was to take our own industrial action,'' he said of the union lockout that forced the grounding of planes.

The decision was taken a day after an explosive annual general meeting where union anger was directed at management, including over a hefty pay rise awarded to Joyce.

The chief executive said he was forced to bring the standoff to a head to tackle unions' "outrageous demands'', with the airline losing Aus$15 million (NZ$19 million) per week.

Tony Sheldon, head of the ground staff's Transport Workers Union, described the mediator's decision as a "slap in the face to Qantas''.

"They are now forced to put their airline back in the air after this despicable action grounding so many planes, and the hopes of so many people right around the world,'' he said.

He said the travelling public and Qantas workers would not easily forgive the airline's actions.

And he urged the government to "protect Australian jobs'' against the airline's Asian restructure.

"The Australian government has a responsibility to make sure that those jobs are not offshored over to Asia,'' he said.

As both sides traded recriminations, passengers were cooling their heels in Australia as well as at Qantas hubs such as Hong Kong, Singapore, London and Los Angeles.

"This is completely unacceptable,'' said Michael Fung, a 57-year-old from Brisbane who was stranded in Hong Kong with his wife.

"I won't fly this airline anymore.''