The fleet of Australia’s biggest carrier was grounded for two days last month during a dispute with labour unions. Now, passengers whose journeys were disrupted by the halt are entitled to a free return economy flight within Australia or to New Zealand over a two-year period from Dec. 14, the Sydney- based airline said. The free flights are a goodwill gesture, completely separate to its compensation packages or any other payments, Qantas Chief Executive Officer Alan Joyce said. However, passengers deprived of their business class flights will have to fly economy if they wish to take up the Qantas free offer, which the airline estimates will cost it about $20 million. “This ticket offer is one of a range of initiatives we will be launching as a way of saying sorry,” Joyce said in a statement yesterday. “Throughout the long period of industrial activity we have been acutely aware of the impact on our customers.” Qantas grounded 108 aircraft on Oct. 29 for about 48 hours in an attempt to end strikes, affecting 80,000 passengers. Qantas engineers and baggage handlers staged stoppages seeking higher pay and job-security measures. Long-haul pilots also held protests in a bid to get the same employment conditions whether they fly for Qantas’s namesake carrier or planes from its budget arm Jetstar. The grounding of Qantas’s fleet was the only option because the labour disputes were causing a slump in sales for the airline, Joyce told an Australian Senate Committee hearing on November 4. Weeks of sporadic strikes caused a “massive” collapse in corporate bookings in October, he added. However, even after the strike, still no resolution has been made between Qantas and its engineers union. The dispute continues to be mediated by the industrial relations regulator, Fair Work Australia. Fair Work Australia ordered an end to stoppages on October 31, giving Qantas and its engineers, long-haul pilots and baggage handlers, 21 days to reach a new contract or face binding arbitration. Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the airline took an “extreme” approach by grounding its fleet. Australians and the tourism industry were “grossly inconvenienced by this high-handed ambush,” Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten said a day after the grounding. The pilots’ union today dismissed offering free tickets as a waste of airline money, pointing to a survey which they claimed showed people blamed the Qantas management more than unions for damaging the airline’s reputation. An eMc Essential Report survey of 1906 people found 59 per cent said the grounding had most damaged the airline’s reputation, compared to 32 per cent blaming industrial action by Qantas unions. The survey found 53 per cent of respondents disapproved of the grounding, while 35 pent cent approved. Asked who was to blame, 41 per cent nominated Qantas management, 20 per cent said the workers with 31 per cent saying both were equally to blame. ”People know that it was completely unnecessary of Mr Joyce to leave 68,000 people stranded around the globe,” Australian International Pilots Association vice president Captain Richard Woodward said. The disruptions by unions has cost Qantas £44m, the airline has said. The free flights may cost the carrier as much as £13 million more, the Sydney-based Daily Telegraph newspaper reported at the weekend. Joyce said Qantas regretted the inconvenience caused by the dispute and by the grounding in particular. “Now that no more industrial action can take place and the cloud of further strike action has lifted, we are 100 percent focused on what matters to customers, getting them to their destinations, safely, on time and in comfort, and in rewarding their loyalty to Qantas,” he said. Qantas’s has made the bid to ally disgruntled passengers and defend its 90 percent share of the business market from rivals. Virgin Australia, the country’s second- biggest airline, carried an extra 30,000 travellers during the shutdown and as a result could achieve 20 per cent of domestic business passengers before a 2014 goal, Chief Executive Officer John Borghetti told Bloomberg TV last week. Brisbane-based Virgin today began sales of business class seats on most of its domestic routes to help it win corporate and government travel from Qantas. The grounding could trigger a credit “nosedive” for Qantas and may damage future bookings, according to Moody’s Investors Service, which has the airline’s Baa2 rating on review for a possible downgrade.