Qantas agreed to share details and documents with the committee though it refused to disclose the information to the public, citing Transport Minister King’s immunity claims.
Qatar Airways said it found out its bid for additional flights into Australia was rejected through media reports rather than direct communication with the Federal Government.
Appearing as a speaker at the Senate inquiry’s hearing on Wednesday in Canberra, Qatar Senior Vice President Fathi Atti said the Gulf carrier learned of the decision through the media in early July 10 and only received an official notification from the government 10 days later.
“It was shocking for us to get the decision through the media and it was more shocking that we received the letter later which does not describe why,” he told the hearing.
Qatar Airways had sought approval from the Federal Government for an increase of 21 additional flights per week, which would have seen extra Qatari flights in key Australian cities like Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane. The bid was rejected, particularly in light of Qantas’ reported lobbying efforts.
Australian Transport Minister Catherine King rejected the airline’s bid, citing opposition from Qantas.
Atii also expressed the airline’s sense of disadvantage compared to competing Gulf carriers, Emirates and Etihad. He argued that the airline’s application was based on the airports which were underserved, with a particular focus on Perth, which he stated was in need of more flights to attract visitors.
“People need to come to Perth,” he said. Atti said the application was “unfairly” rejected.
Also speaking at the inquiry, Qatar Airways Senior Vice President of Sales Matt Raos denounced the decision.
“We were surprised and shocked by the decision … to reject our application for additional flights to Australia,” Raos told the hearing.
Adding to the airline’s concerns was the apparent lack of communication from the government regarding their decision. Despite requesting an explanation, Qatar Airways has yet to receive any response from King or her department.
“Even more surprising was the government gave us no reason for rejecting our application, we really can’t understand why.”
“We were there when Australians faced tough times, when other airlines turned their back on Australia, Australia turned to us,” he said.
“We were surprised and shocked by the decision of the Australian government to reject our application for additional flights to Australia,” he said.
“Even more surprising was that the government gave us no reason for rejecting our application. We really can’t understand why. Qatar Airways and the State of Qatar have been a friend and ally of Australia for 40 years.”
He said the added flights would have injected substantial economic benefits into Australia’s economy during a challenging period, potentially contributing a staggering $3 billion to the Australian economy over a five-year period.
During the hearing, Senator Tony Sheldon questioned the absence of Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker. In response, Raos explained that the short notice given for the inquiry made it difficult for the chief executive to attend, as their schedules are typically booked weeks, if not months, in advance.
Regarding an incident at Doha Airport in 2020 where a group of women were strip-searched by officials, Raos refrained from commenting, citing an ongoing Federal Court case and the airline’s commitment to uphold any decisions made by the court.
King has long defended her decision, citing the strip-search incident in 2020 as a reason. However, this admission came weeks after she initially denied any connection between the two incidents.
Speaking at the inquiry, Raos said is was “a one-off incident, a very extreme incident.”
“We’ve had nothing like it previously in our history and we’re completely committed to ensuring nothing like this ever happens again,” Raos told the committee.
Meanwhile, Raos urged the government to provide a more comprehensive explanation of its position, asserting that the decision did not fully take into account the interests of Australians and international visitors.
“We don’t think this decision fully takes into account the interest of Australians,” he said. “We don’t think it’s in the interest of international visitors coming here.”
Qatar Airways also argued it had been granted additional flights during the pandemic, indicating that the bilateral arrangement could be “flexible”.
The scheduled start date for the additional flights was supposed to be February 2023.
In another revelation Qantas new CEO Vanessa Hudson said that her airline also learned about the government’s decision to reject Qatar Airways’ request for more flights through media reports, without a prior notice from Transport Minister King.
“To my knowledge we were not told,” Hudson said.
Qantas committed to providing details of its communication with the government regarding Qatar Airways’ application only to the committee, and not for public disclosure, citing immunity claims by King.
This decision disappointed the Senate committee.
Transport Minister King, who is currently on annual leave, had previously cited “public interest immunity” as the reason for withholding documents from Parliament concerning her decision to reject Qatar Airways’ bid, claiming that disclosing the material could potentially reveal sensitive details about international relations.
Separately, the entities responsible for overseeing two of the nation’s largest airports, Brisbane and Melbourne airports, have urged the federal government to reconsider its rejection of Qatar Airways’ proposal.
During a Senate inquiry held in Brisbane on Tuesday, the Brisbane Airport Corporation (BAC) expressed its concerns regarding the adverse consequences of the rejection, including the escalation of airfares and a detrimental impact on tourism.
The inquiry’s objective was to examine whether the government’s decision had a stifling effect on competition in the aviation sector.
Ryan Both, the Executive General Manager of BAC, stressed the need for increased competition among airlines, echoing warnings from the country’s consumer watchdog that airfares had more than doubled since April.
Michael Cullen, representing Melbourne Airport, concurred with BAC’s perspective, emphasising the economic contributions made by international airlines as a critical factor that should be taken into account.