‘Farcical’: Why empty chairs sparked fury

NSW Labor senator Tony Sheldon has chastised the opposition for holding inquiry hearings in Perth. NCA Newswire / Gaye Gerard

The Coalition has been lashed for burning through taxpayer dollars for holding hearings for an inquiry in Perth after only just five witnesses attended in person.

Labor senators Tony Sheldon and Linda White, who are serving on an inquiry into Australia’s bilateral air service agreements, accused the opposition of wasting “tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars”.

More than two thirds of the witnesses joining the inquiry in Perth were doing so via teleconference rather than appearing in person.

“Once again, the Australian taxpayer has had to foot the bill for a political stunt pulled by the Coalition,” the Labor senators said in a joint statement.

“If people were still looking for a reason why the Coalition cannot be trusted with public funds, they can find it here.

“All the Committee has learned so far is that the Liberal and National parties spent a decade neglecting the aviation sector,” their statement read.

“While this farcical hearing was taking place, new Qantas CEO Vanessa Hudson issued yet another apology without apologising or even referring to the 1,700 illegally sacked ground handlers.

“It has been nine days since the High Court decision, and the workers have still not received an apology from Qantas, or from the Liberals and Nationals who fully supported Qantas’ decision to illegally sack them.”

Senators Sheldon and White both attended the inquiry in person.

Airports subject to illegal activity

Embattled national carrier Qantas has been accused of seeing itself as “above the law” in what is the latest controversy to confront the airline.

Fronting the inquiry, Canberra Airport chief executive Stephen Bryon said that airports had been subjected to illegal behaviour by the airline, referencing the unlawful sacking of ground workers during the pandemic.

“As an airport, it makes it very hard to deal with them and encourages … the behaviour where Qantas sees themselves as above the law,” Mr Byron told the inquiry.

“Airports have been subjected to unlawful behaviour by Qantas. They seem to act as if they are above the law, above the contracts they sign.

“The real impact is on the customers and we're seeing that played out now with extremely high and unfair airfares.”

Qantas accused of anti-competitive behaviour

Mr Bryon also argued Qantas structured its route schedule for Jetstar such that it would not be required to compete with Qantas, which was contributing to its outsized profits.

“Competition in the domestic airline industry is mainly driven on price by the low cost carrier and we're not seeing that competition,” he told the inquiry.

The chief executive of Canberra Airport has slammed the national carrier. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Damian Shaw

“Qantas has 66 per cent of the market but in fact makes 80 per cent of the profits.”

Due to intense competition in the aviation industry, Mr Bryon said new airlines were not incentivised to enter the market.

“Bonza is a new airline that has entered the market and it can‘t get access to Sydney Airport,” he said.

“In fact, [Bonza] has chosen to fly routes on which Qantas and Virgin don‘t operate. They see the level of competition so significant and the barriers to entry so high.

“90 per cent of their routes don’t have Virgin or Qantas on them.”

According to analysis from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the remaining market share is taken up by Virgin at 33.6 per cent, and Rex at 5.3 per cent.

New Qantas chief executive Vanessa Hudson faces the daunting task of repairing the airline’s flagging reputation. Picture: NCA Newswire / Gaye Gerard

Slot rules ‘ridiculous’: Byron

Rules that allow airlines to have exclusive access to takeoff and landing ‘slots’ if they don’t cancel more than 20 per cent of their flights were also targeted by the Canberra Airport executive.

“The rule is ridiculous for domestic flights,” Mr Byron said.

“For domestic flights it should be 95 per cent versus 5 per cent. It’s a very poor misuse of critical infrastructure.”

“My view is that Qantas have booked into the schedule more flights than they will ordinarily have and what that does is take up a huge number of slots.”

Mr Byron cited examples where Qantas was running two separate flights on the same route five minutes apart, rather than running one larger aircraft, so that the slots were unavailable to a competitor.