Australians may have “missed the boat” in accessing cheap airfares, and could be doomed to a new reality of expensive flights because of the government’s decision to block Qatar Airways, the Coalition says.
Nationals senator Matt Canavan – a member of the newly minted senate inquiry seeking to uncover why the Albanese government decided in July to block the airline’s bid to almost double their flight offerings – said he feared the impact of the decision could already be bedded in.
The inquiry heard airfares could have dropped by up to 10 per cent if Transport Minister Catherine King had granted Qatar’s application for 21 extra flight services.
Airline Intelligence and Research chief executive Tony Webber said the decision had cost Australia’s tourism industry $1bn, and drove up “aggressive” competition between airlines, with Qantas the main culprit.
The Coalition has accused the government of running a “protection racket” for Qantas, and are unhappy with the explanations offered by Labor so far.
Senator Canavan said Australians struggling to afford rapidly rising airfares deserved to know why the government had made the decision.
“I fear now that we may have missed the boat to bring down aviation flight prices for Australians,” he told Channel 9.
“We could have had this downward pressure if the government made the decision to let more competition in. Instead, they protected Qantas.
“They still haven’t given us a legitimate reason. They have about nine different reasons … and still can’t come up with a good reason why they’ve done this to Australians.”
Senator Canavan said the government should start their own review of the decision, and “look what they can do for Australian families before what they should do for Australian big businesses”.
Flight Centre boss Graham Turner used his appearance at the inquiry on Tuesday to call for the competition watchdog to be consulted on how foreign airlines gain access to Australia’s airspace.
He said the government should consider introducing more “open skies” agreements with other countries to encourage airlines to increase the number of flights to the country, which he said would lower airfares.
Independent Fowler MP Dai Le said with Christmas around the corner the government needed to “step in and do something”, to ensure Australians can access more affordable flights.
“The competition has to be encouraged, because if you have competition there in airlines, we would be able to purchase cheaper fares and increase tourism as well,” she told 9 News.
“Really, the government of the day has to take responsibility for that.”
Speaking to Triple M Newcastle on Wednesday, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the government was advocating for greater competition, and said Qatar should take up the offer of returning to their pre-pandemic flight routes to Canberra and Adelaide.
He once again backed in Ms King’s decision, saying it was “status quo”, and was “perfectly consistent with what other governments have done in the past”.
“This is about just the flights to the gateway airports. (Qatar) are free to fly as many flights as they’d like to other airports,” he said.
One of the reasons Ms King has offered for blocking the bid was ongoing concern about an incident in Doha in 2020, when five women were forcibly stripsearched at gun point.
Lawyers representing the women taking legal action against Qatar Airways and Qatari officials told the senate they “didn’t know” if the women were a smokescreen being used by the government, but pressed that justice was being sought.
Qatar Airways released a public apology for the incident back in 2020.
Earlier this week, the airline confirmed a representative would front a hearing of the senate inquiry next week, but it remains unclear whether chief executive Akbar Al Baker will appear after he called Ms King’s decision “very unfair”.
The inquiry will continue next week.