Canberra Airport managing director Stephen Byron has denied claims his airport held a Qantas Boeing 737-800 for ransom following a diversion in March 2017.
The claim, made by Qantas on Monday, relates to a flight en route from Auckland to Sydney that landed at Canberra Airport due to bad weather.
A senior Qantas spokesperson said on Monday a car was parked behind the aircraft to prevent it from departing until a diversion charge was paid.
“Cost aside, this episode involved Canberra Airport essentially ransoming an aircraft full of passengers on the tarmac by parking a car behind it. This behaviour beggars belief,” the spokesperson said.
While Byron confirmed there was an “operational vehicle” in place behind the 737-800, he said claims of the aircraft and the 170 odd people on board being held hostage until a diversion charge was paid were “absolute baloney”.
“We did park an operations vehicle behind it. The operations vehicle was in touch with the control tower, it was in touch with the pilots, it was in touch with the Qantas ground ops crew,” Byron told Australian Aviation in an interview on Tuesday.
“When they got given their slot time, they started to prepare for getting away and so we facilitated – because it was our stairs – the stairs getting taken away from the aircraft.
“Then there was an eight-minute delay with the aircraft behind while we were talking to senior Qantas management to get a commitment from them that this wouldn’t happen again and we would negotiate an international diversion agreement, which we now have in place.”
Byron said Canberra Airport had been concerned for some time about the number of international Qantas flights that were diverting to the airport due to weather.
This was because, Byron said, the airport only had a limited capacity to handle international diversions on the ground at any one time.
“An international diversion landing by itself is not unsafe. But the issue here at Canberra Airport is that we lie very close to Sydney,” Byron said.
“We only have accommodation for up to five international aircraft, not all of which need to be widebodied.
“We have what’s called international diversion agreements with a number of airlines so that they can be assured that if they nominate Canberra, that is need to divert here, that there is parking accommodation.
“Because when we run out of parking accommodation, the last resort is to park an aircraft on the runway and then you shut the airport,” Byron said.
“So it is a significant safety issue. It’s an issue we take enormously seriously. This was the last in a series of unannounced diversions by Qantas, who had no diversion agreement with us.”
Information from Canberra Airport indicated Qantas had an agreement with the airport on international diversions between July 2008 to November 2014.
Byron said the airline and the airport signed a new international diversion agreement shortly after the March 2017 incident.
To illustrate the point, Byron noted a day in mid-February 2017 when storms led to the temporary closure of Sydney Airport.
As a result, two Qantas 747 international aircraft diverted to Canberra, along with a Virgin Australia international 737 and another Qantas international 737.
“So we had four international aircraft on the ground, we had one more 747 coming and the five airlines that we had international diversion slot agreements with were still coming towards Sydney,” Byron said
“I tell you I have never been so [expletive deleted] scared because then what happened is that we lost half of our parking capacity at the Fairbairn apron due to a fast-moving bushfire at Carwoola to the south of the airport because there was refuelling of fire-fighting aircraft,” he recalled.
“We were in a crisis mode, we stood up our emergency committee, our senior executives.
“The landing and diversion of the Qantas aircraft are not dangerous but they create the dangerous situation.”
The coming to light of the March 2017 diversion more than a year after it occurred comes after Canberra Airport’s efforts to seek an improvement in the number of flight cancellations on key trunk routes from the nation’s capital to Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney.
The airport, owned by Terry Snow’s privately-held Capital Airport Group, has been vocal about the high rate of cancellations, even calling for the government to become involved.
In late 2017, the airport announced an incentive payment for airlines to try to get the percentage of cancelled flights down close to the national average, as measured by the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE).
“I think the context of that and the publication of those cancellation statistics is important,” Byron said.
https://t.co/HrPiwUXioI We are offering more than half a million dollars to major airlines to stop Canberra to Sydney flight cancellations.
— Canberra Airport (@CanberraAirport) April 2, 2018
“Because of that, and because we have put up $100,000 to put our money where our mouth is, this has upset Qantas, so they have come out and pulled up the eight-minute incident from 14 months ago.
“They want to suddenly portray we are being unreasonable. Well, I don’t think they want to take responsibility for their poor customer performance.”