Minister denies searches of Australian women in Doha behind move to block Qatar Airways

Minister denies searches of Australian women in Doha behind move to block Qatar Airways

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London: Federal Transport Minister Catherine King says the detention and forced examinations of Australian women at Doha airport during the pandemic was not behind the decision to deny Qatar Airways’ request to double its Australian flights.

The tourism industry said Qatar doubling its capacity would lower the price of international airfares, which that have remained high since Australia reopened its borders after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Transport Minister Catherine King says it’s incumbent on Qantas to understand its role in the Australian market.Credit: Akex Ellinghausen

But the government refused Qatar Airways’ bid to add 21 flights to its services from Doha into Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane last year.

A group of women suing the airline over being subjected to invasive searches at Doha Airport objected to the airline’s bid. Five of the women wrote to the minister asking her to consider their plight as she decided on Qatar’s request.

“We ask that you give careful consideration to the fact that Qatar Airways refused to meet with us and resolve our complaints amicably, despite the fact that some of us were sexually violated during the incident while passengers onboard their airline,” they said.

“We implore you to instead consider an airline that will uphold human rights, adhere to international travel and human rights conventions, and do all things reasonably necessary to safeguard its passengers.”

In a letter dated July 10, 2023, the minister told the women that the government was not considering granting Qatar extra landing rights.

The minister has not publicly explained the reasons behind the decision.

“We don’t wish to progress further bilateral flight arrangements with Qatar,” King said in London, where she toured Britain’s high-speed rail projects.

She denied the reason for blocking Qatar having greater access to Australia’s aviation market was related to the treatment of women in the October 2020 incident.

“I wouldn’t link the decision not to continue to engage with Qatar,” she said.

“I’m sure Qatar will continue to come to Australia and continue to ask for air rights, and we don’t want to consider that at the moment.

“And so I’m sure they’ll continue to prosecute that case; we’ll continue at this stage to say we’re not planning to change that view.”

Asked if this provided an unfair advantage for Qantas, which has reported super profits with demand outstripping flight capacity, King said that was an “unfair characterisation”.

“I think it’s incumbent on Qantas to understand its role and position it plays in the Australian market,” she said.

Qantas also opposed granting its competitor extra space in the Australian market.

King said competition would be part of the green and white papers on the future of aviation in Australia and stressed she wanted to see a strong sector that provided jobs.

“I want more capacity for people to be able to enjoy travel, but equally I want to be able to decarbonise the transport sector, aviation has a role to play in that as well, so there’s a mix of things I look at,” she said.

The tourism industry said Qatar doubling its capacity would lower the price of international airfares for Australians.Credit: iStock

The five women are being represented by Marque Lawyers. Partner Damian Sturzaker said: “We understand the reluctance of the minister to grant further air rights to a carrier that was not only involved in the incident but who has refused to compensate or even an apologise for the mistreatment of our clients.”

“It is hard to imagine a world in which Qantas would adopt this approach”.

Turkish Airlines also wants to add more flights to Australia but chairman Ahmet Bolat said the request was delayed, citing legal issues. “There are some legal issues that we have to solve between the Turkish government and the Australian government,” Bolat told The Australian Financial Review on Friday.

King told the Financial Review that Turkish Airlines had failed to formally request to expand its services, and that the government would review whether the airline could add more flights.

With international arrivals are still down 40 per cent compared with the last 12 months before COVID, the opposition’s tourism spokesman, Kevin Hogan, said the minister must publish the reasons behind her decision.

“I’m worried about the impact it has on our tourism industry as well as our trade relations with Qatar and other Middle East countries,” Hogan said. “Qatar’s proposal had the support of the NSW and Victorian governments, our airports, travel agents and tourism bodies.

“We need more competition in the market to make Australia a competitive international tourism market again.

“The government must publish its reasons to block Qatar Airways’ request.”

Qatar Airways declined to comment.

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