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Canberra Airport calls Qantas 737 ransom claim "absolute baloney"

written by australianaviation.com.au | May 15, 2018
Qantas and Virgin Australia aircraft at Canberra Airport. (Seth Jaworski)

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.

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“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.

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“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.”

A Qantas 737 lands at Canberra Airport. (Andrew McLaughlin)

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.

“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.”

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40 Comments

  • Scott

    says:

    Ouch getting nasty!

  • That Ron guy

    says:

    Storms in Sydney, bushfires in Canberra, & a whole bunch of planes coming your way; it certainly would be the perfect storm. The last thing you want is a repeat of Tenerife 1977.
    For the aircraft in bad weather, just getting on the ground is their immediate priority & you would think a bit of compassion from whatever airport in such circumstances would go a long way. A friend in need is a friend indeed. But the airport has to balance that with their operations & obviously only has very limited capacity. Maybe the money they’re offering to discourage cancellations would be better spent on a new apron to park unexpected visitors. Either that or the aircraft just go another 40 minutes or so down the road to Melbourne.

  • John

    says:

    That will go down well. Insulting your best customer.

  • Ryan

    says:

    Sounds like it did happen then

  • Ethan

    says:

    Car vs plane, how did the car win?

  • Qantas will learn to their detriment that you don’t bully Terry Snow and Steve Byron. Maybe Alan Joyce should enhance relations with the operator of the Nation’s Capital airport.
    They bat well above their weight!
    Bet some glorified ops clerk learnt a big lesson.

  • Frequent Flyer

    says:

    The more flights Qantas cancels between Canberra and Sydney the better. It just means I will continue to fly with Virgin.

  • Dave Rogers

    says:

    To quote an old friend, ‘rarely is bullshit presented in such an unrefined manner’!

  • Colin

    says:

    I would believe Qantas anyday before a money hungry airport business.
    I worked for Qantas for 22yrs and the company is the most professional and honest I have had the pleasure to work for.

  • Michael

    says:

    Perhaps it’s a sign of the sad state of Australian aviation infrastructure when an airport can’t accommodate diversions. But I bet there were plenty of shops in the terminal for the passengers to shop. Shame they can’t land there though.
    Absolutely disgusting

  • Brian

    says:

    Why the name of that “senior spokesperson” not being published? Is this another piece of fake news?

  • Alex

    says:

    Fisty cuffs mate

  • Ron

    says:

    737 on stand with Airport Ops car parked behind blocking it. Is this normal?
    Delay 8 minutes in allowing aircraft with valid flight plan to depart. 8 mins for an aircraft behind?
    Talking with senior Qantas management for commitment to an international diversion agreement.
    I’d say that was pretty clearly “effectively holding to ransom”. Getting a commitment could have been undertaken at any other time without any impact to the waiting aircraft.
    How does the diversion agreement solve the problem of 5 parking spaces anyway?

  • Matt

    says:

    And to think it wasn’t that long ago Canberra Airport was pitching itself as alternative to Sydney’s second airport. A few diversions and they’re at capacity.

  • Col

    says:

    Privatisation, espoused by the Governments of all persuasion, who sold off the assets as “being good for competition and driving prices down’
    Just goes to show who flexes their muscles the most can do what they like. Was Melbourne the nearest alternative, if Canberra airport refused arrival clearance.
    As ex Air Force stationed at Fairbairn in the late 70s we had an Alitalia B747 divert into Canberra due to an engine failure and park on the RAAF side. No quibbling from the Air Force on who was going to pay for this inconvenience.

  • Craig

    says:

    Not sure Qantas likes it when another business actually looks after its own business interests and plays hardball the same way Qantas does. Perhaps Qantas could ask for another government handout to cover the diversion costs (just prior to posting another record profit…).

  • Treb Retosf

    says:

    Mr Byron may say that it is ‘baloney’ but there is no possible reason why a car needed to be parked behind the 737.
    The stairs don’t need a car to tow them away, and even if a fee was required, they would have the registration and multiple other details to chase fees later. I don’t think Qantas is about to close up and leave the country.
    His excuse is a very smelly baloney!
    Maybe Mr Byron should spend more time in fixing the taxiway (A-Alpha) known locally as the ‘goat track’ as it is the roughest taxiway in the country to taxi a 737 on especially early on a cold winters morning when the tyres are hard and flattened after an overnight sit!
    Another part of CBR airport that could be fixed is the security screening. There is no room to get your items (laptops, aerosols etc.) out of your bag before placing them on the conveyor so it takes longer to get everybody through during busy times. Then there’s no where to put them back in while trying to duck the explosive screen clown!
    The terminal may ‘look’ great but it sadly lacks practicality. Did anybody care to look at other terminals during the design phase? Probably not because CBR Knows Better!

  • Tropicalcat

    says:

    Unacceptable face of capitalised Airports. Not ever ok in any circumstances.
    And what about our regulatory authorities on this saga???

  • Ben

    says:

    No room?? There is plenty of room there before the airport would be shut mate… have a look at the amount of metal some Canadian airports took on September 11… sure extreme example, but there is plenty of space at Canberra if push comes to shove. Just cause it’s international doesn’t mean you can only have 5… they just need AFP to watch them as they pre-flight and refuel and don’t let anyone off. Same as would happen at an international divert to MANY other locations like Rockhampton or Learmonth.

  • Mungo Mike

    says:

    Why wouldn’t an airline cancel flights if it has bugger all passengers? It happens all over the world. The airline wants to make money too, they aren’t there for the convenience of an airport.

  • D bell

    says:

    We dont have wide body capacity, what the heck have singapore airline being flying into Canberra for the past 2 years?, tiger moths? Really!!!!!

  • Random

    says:

    Canberra Airport – in case of emergency, break piggy bank…..
    Seriously however…. rather surprised there isn’t some sort of diversion ‘Convention’ for airlines…. would stop individual / Independent Airport Managements from going rogue……

  • James

    says:

    Reading this article and Canberra Airports explanation I’m inclined to agree with the Qantas view of what happened.

  • Rod Pickin

    says:

    Not that long ago a B747-400 diverted to OOL due WX at BNE, – (in addition to other A/C), I don’t recall a car being parked behind it in protest.on that occasion. The Canberra owners need to understand that for every action there is always a reaction and they may well have exposed themselves to some serious litigation

  • Freddie

    says:

    CBR airport very glitzy but just doesn’t work as smoothly as an airport should.

  • Mike

    says:

    Totally unacceptable on Canberra’s behalf. As Byron says, “We did park an operations vehicle behind it.“ highly unprofessional and contra to the best interest of CBR relationships to all Airlines.

  • john doutch

    says:

    HSR (High Speed Rail) would fix this once and for all (Tongue in cheek).

  • Tony

    says:

    Is Canberra Airport missing revenue as a result of cancelled flights? Are they speaking through their pockets?

  • Chris

    says:

    You have to wonder why Qantas allowed its diversion agreement to lapse.

  • Hutch

    says:

    @Treb Retosf
    “Another part of CBR airport that could be fixed is the security screening. There is no room to get your items (laptops, aerosols etc.) out of your bag before placing them on the conveyor so it takes longer to get everybody through during busy times. Then there’s no where to put them back in while trying to duck the explosive screen clown!”
    I have no idea what you are on about!!! There are benches before each point, built into the design of the security point when CBR airport redeveloped. The trays for the security screening are there. I often pop my bag on here, sort out my stuff into the trays before putting it through the security screening belt.

  • Barry Bain

    says:

    Why the need to park an airport car behind the Qantas aircraft when they could have simply “delayed” the push-back tug? To the best of my limited knowledge none of the Qantas fleet have reverse gear!!!

  • Chris Grealy

    says:

    Looks like another good reason to avoid Canberra airport; the first one being that it’s full of politicians.

  • David

    says:

    That sounds like a ransom situation to me. Canberra Airport do have a point about the limited space for parking away from gates – but the bulk of the statement seems to be not a lot to do with the issue of deliberately obstructing a departure.

  • Murray

    says:

    Would Wagga Wagga be a possible diversion alternative to Canberra?

  • Jeff

    says:

    I’ve been diverted to cbr on a jetstar flight from Melb after storms over mascot. Touched down and parked at Fairbairn. Fueled up a bit .Pilot signed off on it and off we went. A year later with storms over Sydney, Again i saw 8 x 737’s & 320’s from oversea’sand a couple of wide bodies a 747 being one on Flight radar.And they were catered for. Needs a couple of heads banged together. And Qatar and Singapore don’t seem to have issues

  • Ken Scott

    says:

    Diversions are always ‘unannounced’. If they were planned they would not be a diversion. Having ‘diversion agreements’ does not solve the lack of parking space. If Sydney is unavailable because of bad weather and more than five aircraft have to divert to Canberra, well they are are going to divert there. Having one, two, five or even twenty ‘diversion agreements’ will not make one iota of difference. Looks to me little more than a pathetic cash grab by Canberra airport.

  • Matteo

    says:

    Western Sydney Airport will fix the diversion issue, providing an all-weather, 24 hour operation destination and alternate – Finally some competition for passengers held to ransom by airports ….. and airlines alike.

  • Trogdor

    says:

    @Matteo – I agree. Mind you – it will be a very short flight once Mascot opened again.

  • Peter

    says:

    A figure of $18,000 is being quoted as the diversion charge. This is $105 per passenger. Toowoomba would welcome any diversions with open arms.

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