Granting Qatar Airways extra flights into Australia would have delivered cheaper airfares and a $1 billion economic boost, a parliamentary inquiry has been told.
A Senate inquiry examining the Albanese government’s decision to knock back Qatar Airways’ bid for more flights held its first public hearing in Sydney on Tuesday.
Airline Intelligence and Research chief executive Tony Webber said additional services would have led to “favourable effects”.
“There will be a material reduction in airfares … somewhere between seven per cent and 10 per cent,” he told the Senate committee.
The former Qantas chief economist said there would have been an improvement in inbound tourism, largely from Europe, that could have been worth up to $1 billion.
Dr Webber described the Australian airline as an “exceptionally aggressive competitor”.
“If a new carrier encroaches on its routes, on its market share, then it will aggressively respond,” he said.
Representatives from Qatar Airways and Qantas did not appear on Tuesday but have been invited to give evidence.
Committee member Tony Sheldon was particularly insistent that Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker attend after the inquiry heard from lawyers representing Australian women who were strip-searched in Dubai.
“The statement from Qatar Airways yesterday that they intend to send unspecified ‘representatives’ is not sufficient,” he said in a statement on Tuesday.
Transport Minister Catherine King has come under fire for her decision to reject Qatar Airways’ request to double the 28 weekly services it offers in Australia, after being lobbied by Qantas.
Critics say the move shields Qantas from competition, but Ms King has maintained the decision was made in the national interest.
Sydney University professor Rico Merkert estimated the cost to the economy to be more than $1 billion because of the government’s decision.
He said had the request been granted, cheaper international airfares would have been guaranteed.
Thirteen Australian women were detained at Doha’s Hamad International Airport in October 2020, after a baby was found abandoned in a bin.
Qatari authorities searched for the mother before they pulled women off several flights at gunpoint. The women were led away and forced to undergo invasive examinations.
Marque Lawyers managing partner Michael Bradley, who is representing a group of the women, said Qatar Airways was dragging out the case and had made it a “torturous and expensive process”.
“What happened to them was extraordinary and the airline has not answered for it,” he said.
“The airline has never stepped up and clients have been forced to undertake complex and potentially very expensive litigation to try to enforce their rights and seek redress.”
Mr Bradley said his clients want Mr Al Baker to appear before the inquiry.
Opposition transport spokeswoman Bridget McKenzie said she was concerned the women were being used as a “front” for the decision to reject the extra flights.
Asked if Qatar’s request should be allowed, Sydney Airport chief executive Geoff Culbert said there were “strong arguments” for increasing flights when services from the Middle East were down by a quarter.
Flight Centre boss Graham Turner said it was in the government’s interest to review the decision, saying it would stay in people’s minds.
Asked if Qantas was the most aggressive airline to deal with, Mr Culbert replied: “Yes.”
Qantas has faced a recent storm of disasters, including a potential $250 million fine from the consumer watchdog.
The airline also lost a High Court appeal, which found it had illegally sacked almost 1700 workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The committee will report back by October 9.