Qatar Airways has expressed shock and disappointment in an Australian decision to block more flights as Australia’s transport minister refused a Senate request to disclose documents.
Qatar Airways has slammed Australia’s recent decision to deny its request for additional flights as “very unfair,” especially since the airline played a pivotal role in repatriating Australians during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The national airliner’s CEO Akbar Al Baker finally broke his silence during an exclusive interview with CNN on Saturday.
He expressed his “very surprised” reaction to Australian Transport Minister Catherine King’s rejection of the airline’s bid for 21 extra weekly flights to various airports across the country, citing opposition from Qantas.
“We found it to be very unfair, our legitimate request to be not granted, especially at a time when we were so supportive of Australia,” he said during the interview.
During the pandemic, Qatar Airways maintained its flights into and out of Australia even when domestic carriers suspended their operations.
Al Baker highlighted his company’s crucial role in “repatriating stranded citizens from around the world to and out of Australia, helping them receiving medical supplies and spare parts, et cetera, during the COVID period when the national carrier and their partners completely stopped operating in Australia.”
“We were there for the people of Australia,” he maintained.
Australia’s government has continued to face intense scrutiny since rejecting the Qatar Airways bid.
Officials from the government, tourism sector and business groups are collectively advocating for greater transparency regarding the reasons behind the refusal to grant additional flights to Qatar, particularly in light of Qantas’ reported lobbying efforts.
An upcoming Senate inquiry into the reasons behind the decision to block additional flights is set to commence on Tuesday.
However, as the Senate inquiry delves into the Australian government’s contentious decision, King has raised eyebrows by taking a two-week leave of absence.
She also penned a bizarre letter to the Senate prior to her leave, firmly declining to provide any information requested by a Senate order for documents that would help uncover the rationale behind the government’s refusal to increase Qatar Airways’ flight capacity, including departmental advice that is believed to have allegedly favoured the Gulf carrier’s application, reports said.
“The production of documents falling within the scope of these orders would, or might reasonably be expected to, disclose the nature of bilateral relations with Australia’s foreign partners that we have given undertakings to protect,” she wrote.
“There is a public interest in not disclosing such discussions so the Government’s negotiations over air services agreements with a range of countries can continue unimpeded.
“As such, I claim public interest immunity over documents subject to the Orders,” King stated.
National Senator Bridget McKenzie, who is set to chair the Senate committee, criticised Minister Catherine King for withholding documents explaining the government’s decision.
“It is shocking that Transport Minister Catherine King waited until parliament rose to tell us that she will now not be disclosing advice from her department on why she blocked more Qatar Airways flights based on ‘public interest immunity’,” McKenzie said.
Minister King had previously provided various reasons for declining Qatar’s request, including concerns about invasive body searches conducted on Australian women at Doha’s Hamad International Airport, reducing emissions, and safeguarding the national interest.
The Senate committee’s inquiry promises to shed light on this contentious issue and address the concerns raised by Qatar Airways and its supporters.
King has faced intense scrutiny over her decision to reject the Gulf carrier’s bid for 21 extra weekly flights to various airports across the country, including Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane.
However, she has defended her decision, citing the strip-search incident in 2020 as a reason. This admission came weeks after she initially denied any connection between the two incidents.
Meanwhile, opposition Leader Peter Dutton has accused the Labour government of striking a “sweetheart deal” with Qantas which he believes has directly contributed to high airfares for Australians.