Qatar Airways aircraft
A political row continues over the government denying Qatar Airways more Australian flights. Image by Richard Wainwright/AAP PHOTOS
  • politics

Block stands on more Qatar Airways flights as row rages

Paul Osborne September 6, 2023

A decision to block Qatar Airways from securing extra flights into Australia won’t be reversed by the federal government.

The decision by Transport Minister Catherine King in July and existing unrest over the airline’s treatment of customers and massive profits have lit a political bonfire in Canberra.

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce on Tuesday announced he would retire two months early to allow the airline to rebuild its reputation.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers said the government would not review the Qatar decision, which the opposition said amounted to a “protection racket” in favour of Qantas.

“Transport ministers from both sides of politics from time to time take decisions in the national interest and that’s what’s happening here,” Dr Chalmers said.

He said it had not impeded extra international flight capacity into Australia.

Dr Chalmers later said he had not been consulted on the Qatar decision.

Under opposition questioning on Wednesday, Ms King told parliament her department had consulted with “relevant aviation stakeholders”.

“I was well aware of different stakeholders’ views when I took the decision,” she said.

Asked whether she had met with Mr Joyce before the decision, Ms King said: “I do meet routinely with the CEOs of all of the airlines, airports and peak bodies”.

But she said the “main people” who lobbied her over the Qatar application had been from Virgin Australia and discussions with Qantas had focused on workplace laws.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said the minister had not answered the question and “continued to escape property scrutiny”.

“The minister’s integrity is seriously in question,” he told parliament.

Leader of the House Tony Burke said the minister had acted in the national interest.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has been drawn into the furore after having to clarify comments he made in parliament.

Mr Albanese initially said, in answer to an opposition question on Tuesday, that he had spoken with Virgin Australia before Ms King’s decision.

Virgin has a strategic partnership with Qatar Airways.

Mr Albanese later clarified his answer, telling parliament he spoke to Virgin chief executive Jayne Hrdlicka on July 13 – three days after the decision – by phone from Perth about the air services arrangements with Qatar.

But he did not know at the time the minister had made her decision.

Mr Albanese said in Jakarta on Wednesday there were air services agreements with more than 100 countries and decisions were always made in the “national interest”.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong revealed on Wednesday she had spoken with her Qatari counterpart this week, but the issue of the air services agreement was not raised.

Senator Wong said she discussed a range of bilateral matters, including in relation to an incident at Qatar’s Hamad airport, and multilateral issues ahead of the UN General Assembly later this month.

Five Australian women are taking legal action over their alleged strip searching at the Hamad International Airport – the Doha home of Qatar Airways – in October 2020. 

Whether the airport incident had anything to do with the government’s Qatar Airways decision is expected to be raised in a Senate inquiry, alongside issues of competition and ticket pricing.

Ms King has been formally asked to provide documents explaining the decision.

Liberal deputy leader Sussan Ley said the Qatar Airways decision should be overturned.

Qantas also faces Federal Court action by the competition watchdog over allegations of advertised tickets for flights that had already been cancelled.

The company is reviewing the allegations and has acknowledged its standards “fell well short” as the airline emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last month Qantas announced a record pre-tax profit of $2.47 billion for the past financial year.

Nationals leader David Littleproud said the Qantas board and new chief executive had “very serious questions to answer” over their treatment of customers.