At the helm during long pilots dispute




28-2-1951 - 7-10-2012

TERRY O'Connell's public persona was inextricably linked with the Australian Federation of Air Pilots, of which he was executive director for more than 25 years, but this was not the sum of the man. His life, including a quiet passion for Collingwood Football Club, was a demonstration of loyalty and care for friends and colleagues. He died after a short illness from cancer, aged 61.

Terence Patrick O'Connell was born in Clifton Hill. He was raised in Thornbury and Watsonia and lived in more recent years in North Balwyn. He attended Christian Brothers' Parade College and the University of Melbourne, where he gained a degree in commerce and a diploma of social studies. His training in social work, particularly in the more specialised area of personnel practice (which included placements with APM and General Motors Holden), ultimately led to a career in industrial relations.

O'Connell loved sport, especially cricket. He and his brother, Gavan, were excellent cricketers who played for the love of the game and the friendships it created. His special love was the Old Paradians Cricket Club, where he developed some of his closest friendships. Even when enjoying an "after-match" beer with the rest of the team, he always kept an eye out for any of the younger players who might need some help or guidance. He had an innate sense of when someone needed help, and would put everything aside to give them the support they needed. One of his closest friends from his cricketing days said at his funeral: "He saved my life."

In February 1977, O'Connell joined the Australian Federation of Air Pilots as a research officer. He was part of generational change at the federation in the 1970s: the old cohort of administrators and industrial advocates - those who had learnt the ropes on the job - were progressively replaced by university graduates.

O'Connell's research work for the federation focused on economic issues, providing informed background for the pilot leaders and industrial officers in their negotiations with the airline companies. In the 1970s and early 1980s this meant meetings almost every week with pilots from Trans Australia Airlines (TAA) and Ansett - the airlines that constituted Australia's domestic "two-airline" environment.

As O'Connell moved into an industrial officer position, he cut his teeth on work in the general aviation (non-airline) area dealing with unfair dismissals, incident and accident investigations, and the development of a ground-breaking award in 1979 that covered all general aviation pilots. While advancing his career within the federation, he learnt to deal with successive executive committees headed by men of strong will and dominant personalities. He became adept at getting to the crux of an industrial issue while often juggling competing concerns based on regional or pilot seniority disputes.

When O'Connell became the federation's executive director in 1986, the president of the day noted that he had been appointed after interviews with 30 applicants. The principal officers of the federation foreshadowed that tough times were to come - they had already ruffled the feathers of the Hawke Labor government on salary and superannuation issues - and were facing deregulation of the airline industry. They needed an astute and steadfast executive director, and they found it in O'Connell.

His skills as an industrial advocate, as well as his faith in the solidarity of the federation's members, were tested to the limit in 1989. After a breakdown in salary negotiations with Ansett and Australian Airlines (formerly TAA) in August 1989, about 1600 pilots resigned, throwing the domestic airline industry into turmoil. As the dispute dragged on into 1990, one of the frustrations for O'Connell was the move away from industrial negotiations to a world of litigation. "There was a substantial change of dynamic in the industrial regime when the dispute happened," he said in recent years. "We went from being a group of industrial relations lay people to being thrust into a legal world we weren't prepared for."

The 1989 dispute decimated the federation as the government and Ansett management joined forces to resist negotiation or arbitration, bringing in foreign pilots and precipitating the exodus of hundreds of Australian pilots to jobs overseas.

A man with less intestinal fortitude than O'Connell would soon have taken up other job offers, but for O'Connell this was never an option. He coped with many long days in court and longer evenings at the office, while responding to media calls and members' anxieties. Despite a high personal cost, he was determined to support the federation's members and, in his words, "just try to get the pilots back to work".

O'Connell's role in rebuilding the federation was a long slog over many years, supporting the many disillusioned airline pilot members while maintaining an effective service for the general aviation members. The federation's status as a body that now represents about 3000 airline and general aviation members is a testament to his efforts. Its president, Captain Bryan Murray, has acknowledged O'Connell's legacy: "The ongoing planning of our operation is attributed in no small part to Terry because he was always thinking ahead, looking at how we could do things better." In recent years, in recognition of his negotiating skills and detailed knowledge of the industry, O'Connell was appointed as industrial adviser to the International Federation of Airline Pilots' Associations.

Despite the stress and demands of his job at the federation, O'Connell always had time for family and friends. His family was the most important thing in his life, and he and his partner Jenny put a high priority on being there to support their children. He tried to teach his girls surfing, even though he knew nothing about it, and he was always on the sidelines at son Dan's sporting events. After the recent death of his brother, Gavan, and then of his father, Charlie, Terry became the rock of the O'Connell family. After a busy weekend helping the girls or being involved with Dan's sport, he would never miss visiting his mum and doing whatever chores needed doing at their family home in Watsonia.

Terry maintained a wide circle of friends, who knew he was genuinely interested in their lives. He always wanted to know all about you and your family, rather than talking about himself. He also had a great sense of humour. His close friend Michael Keaney remarked at his funeral: "Whenever we holidayed with the O'Connells there was always at least one drama, but there was always fun."

O'Connell is survived by his partner Jenny, children Dan, Sarah and Michelle, grandchild Isabelle, his mother Patricia, and sister Sue.

Sonia Jennings and Mary Sheehan wrote a history of AFAP, A Federation of Pilots, published by MUP in 2010 Michael Keaney was an old friend of Terry O'Connell.

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