Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce on Friday defended his decision to stand down two-thirds of the Australian airline’s workers.

According to the chief, the impact of the novel coronavirus on aviation will be worse than the Global Financial Crisis.

Unions condemned Joyce’s Thursday announcement that he will stand down 20,000 Qantas employees until the end of May, while grounding most domestic flights and all international flights after March 31.

Joyce will allow workers to access paid holidays and to access long service leave early and to take some leave in advance.

“This is the worst crisis the aviation industry has gone through.

“ I know for the economy it’s probably going to be a lot worse than the GFC.

“We’re not making people redundant, and we’re trying this mechanism to make sure we can get through and survive and they have a job at the end of the day,’’ Joyce told national broadcaster ABC on Friday morning.

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Joyce is Australia’s highest-paid chief executive, receiving 24 million dollars last year (13.9 million U.S. dollars). The airline made an 891-million-dollar profit in 2019 .

Joyce said he would not take any salary for the rest of the financial year which ends on June 30.

The decision comes despite a 715 million dollar rescue package for the Australian airline industry, announced by the government on Wednesday.

Unions said the government assistance to Qantas should be passed on to employees who lose income.

“It is unconscionable that Qantas is forcing workers to bear the brunt of (this crisis),’’ the Transport Workers Union national secretary Michael Kaine said on Twitter.

Qantas Airways Limited is the flag carrier of Australia and its largest airline by fleet size, international flights and international destinations.

It is the third oldest airline in the world, after KLM and Avianca, having been founded in November 1920. (dpa/NAN)