Flight Centre boss Graham Turner has called for the competition watchdog to be consulted on how foreign airlines gain access to Australian airspace, after the federal government rejected Qatar Airways’ request to double its flights to the country.
Turner told a Senate inquiry hearing on Tuesday that the government should consider introducing more “open skies” agreements with other countries to encourage airlines to increase the number of services to the country, which would lower airfares.
Open skies agreements allow airlines from the two countries to put on as many flights as they chose between their respective airports.
“The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is generally involved with code share determinations. We believe it should also be consulted on bilateral agreements,” Turner said, and pointed to the ACCC’s involvement on decisions pertaining to the travel industry.
Turner, who was speaking a hearing of the Senate select committee into bilateral air service agreements, appeared on behalf of Flight Centre and the Australian Travel Industry Association.
He warned that debate over the rejection of Qatar’s application would not disappear until the government clearly explained its decision, due to the sky-high cost of airfares.
“There’s a story out there about protecting Qantas, I think it runs deeper than that. I would like to hear from the Minister,” Turner said, adding that the decision favoured Qantas.
Transport Minister Catherine King has faced fierce criticism over the way she handled the Qatar Airways rejection over recent months and the lack of clarity as to why the flights were rejected. The bulk of the tourism industry and independent industry researchers such as economist Dr Tony Webber have said the extra flights would have lowered airfares and generated up to $1 billion in additional tourism revenue.
The managing partner of Marque Lawyers, Michael Bradley – who is representing five women against the airline in the Federal Court after they were invasively searched at Doha Airport by Qatari Police in 2020 – said his clients maintained the government should not reverse its decision until they were compensated and the Qatar government improved its approach to human rights.
King has maintained the incident is not the reason the flights were not granted despite the women being advised before Qatar Airways and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
Qatar Airways is yet to confirm when it will attend the inquiry, but a representative is expected to do so at some point over the next fortnight. Newly minted Qantas chief Vanessa Hudson and former longstanding airline boss Alan Joyce are also expected to be called. Qantas is the only known airline to have opposed the decision.
The Australian Travel Industry Association’s Dean Long said it was 90 per cent more expensive to fly to Greece in July than the same period in 2019, and 75 per cent more expensive to fly to the UK when compared to the same period before the pandemic.
Australia has nine passenger “open skies” agreements with other countries including China, India, US, UK and Singapore. All other governments, including Qatar, are required to apply for bilateral air service rights on behalf of their airlines when the carrier businesses want to increase their number of flights.
The Australian Travel Industry Association is one of many industry bodies which have called for an increase in the number of open skies agreements to lower the cost of airfares for passengers and increase airline competition.
Sydney Airport boss Geoff Culbert also expressed support for liberalising the country’s bilateral air rights, saying the current system was too reactionary, and it only catered for existing demand rather than future supply.
“For Australia as a market to be competitive relative to other destinations, airlines require longer-term certainty in accessing air rights on Australian routes,” Culbert said.
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