DOHA - The Australian government’s decision to block Qatar Airways’s request for extra flights to Australia was “very unfair”, the airline’s CEO Akbar al-Baker has told CNN in an interview.
“We found it to be very unfair [for] our legitimate request to be not granted, especially at a time when we were so supportive of Australia,” al-Baker said on Sunday, adding that he was “very surprised” at the decision.
“[We were] repatriating their stranded citizens from around the world to and out of Australia, helping them receive medical supplies and spare parts etc. during the COVID-19 period,” al-Baker said. “The national carrier and its partners completely stopped operating in Australia. We were there for the people of Australia.”
The Doha-based airline had requested to fly an extra 21 services into Australia’s major airports. But Australia’s Transport Minister Catherine King in July formally rejected its bid to add flights to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, saying the proposal was not in Australia’s interests.
During the pandemic, Qatar Airways flights to Australia continued, transporting as few as 20 people per flight, while flights from Qantas, Australia’s national airline, were grounded.
“I am always hopeful for the government to listen to our case very carefully and then make a decision,” the Qatar Airways CEO said, adding that it is difficult for him to comment as an Australian parliamentary inquiry was under way to look into the government decision on Qatar Airways.
“We have full confidence in the government, in the Senate and in the parliament,” al-Baker said.
Earlier this week, Australian Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles said he was not consulted when the country’s transport minister decided to block Qatar Airways’s request.
Last week King, the transport minister, said that “the context” for her decision to not grant Qatar Airways more flights was linked to invasive body searches conducted on a group of Australian women at Doha’s Hamad International Airport in Qatar.
In October 2020, more than a dozen female passengers were subjected to “invasive” and “humiliating” internal exams in Qatar after a newborn infant was found abandoned at the airport.
King’s decision faced intense political scrutiny and she was accused of protecting Qantas, whose former chief executive, Alan Joyce, claimed that allowing Qatar the extra capacity would “distort” the local aviation market.
The airline, which has admitted to lobbying against the Qatar Airways bid, has also faced criticism over a series of recent controversies, including allegations it sold about 8,000 tickets for flights it knew had already been cancelled.
Public anger towards the Australian carrier – which controls more than 60 percent of the domestic market – culminated in the stepping down of Joyce.
The leader of the National Party of Australia and chair of the government inquiry into the decision, Bridget McKenzie, openly accused the government of protectionism.
“I believe they are running a protection racket for Qantas,” McKenzie said while speaking to Sky News.