Note – an updated version of this story was published on May 15 incorporating comments from Canberra Airport.
Qantas says one of its Boeing 737-800s was held for ransom in an unprecedented event at Canberra Airport in March 2017 following a diversion due to weather.
It is understood Canberra Airport prevented the aircraft – carrying about 170 people – from departing until a diversion charge of $18,000 was paid immediately by credit card by parking a car behind the 737-800 and refusing to move it.
It was only after senior Qantas management became involved that the car was moved and the aircraft, which was flying from Auckland to Sydney before diverting to Canberra because of bad weather, could take off.
Qantas slammed the behaviour of Canberra Airport in its handling of the diversion incident and its $18,000 charge for the diversion. The cost of a diversion of a 737 at a similar-sized airport is about $2,000.
“Diversions are, by their very nature, unexpected,” a senior Qantas spokesperson said on Monday.
“Pilots make a decision on where to divert to based on safety, not based on where we have commercial agreements. It’s not a negotiating point. This is universally accepted in global aviation except, it seems, at Canberra Airport.
“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.”
Canberra Airport managing director Stephen Byron told The Canberra Times, which first reported the incident on Monday, that the diversion charge was a disincentive for planes to make unplanned landings at Canberra Airport without having a formal agreement in place.
Further, Byron told the newspaper these agreements were necessary as a safety measure as the airport was limited in its ability to take international diversions.
Australian Aviation has sought comment from Canberra Airport.
The incident highlights the tensions that can exist between airports and the airlines that use them, particularly in Australia where there are few alternatives available.
The likes of Adelaide, Canberra, Perth and Sydney have only one major airport capable and/or authorised, to handle domestic regular public transport (RPT) and international flights.
As such, the airlines are unable to pack up and take their business elsewhere, as is the case in Europe.
For example, at the extreme end of the scale, airlines offered 205 million seats into London’s five major airports Gatwick, Heathrow, Luton, Southend and Stansted in 2017, according to figures from CAPA – Centre for Aviation’s Blue Swan Daily website.
Similarly, Paris has three major airports – Charles de Gaulle in the north east, Orly in the south and Beauvais in the northwest – offering slightly different facilities that the airlines might desire.
And sometimes there are potentially viable alternatives across country borders. Not getting a good experience at Vienna International Airport? Well, Bratislava International Airport is just 70km to the east by road across the Austria-Slovakia border.
Europe’s giant low-cost carrier (LCC) Ryanair has often publicly threatened to move its aircraft and cancel routes to certain airports if the right agreement could not be reached.
“What they forget is that we are an opportunistic company and we go where we can get the best deals,” the plain-speaking chief executive of Ryanair Michael O’Leary told El Pais in August 2011.
Meanwhile, airports and the retailers therein have no business if there are no passengers buying coffee, taking taxis or picking up some chocolates at the duty free shop prior to or after their flights.
Returning to Canberra, the aircraft diversion was not the first time the airport has been in open conflict with its major tenant.
The airport, owned by Terry Snow’s privately-held Capital Airport Group, has been vocal of late about the high rate of cancellations on the Canberra-Sydney route – only served by Qantas and Virgin Australia – even calling for the government to be come involved.
“Canberrans are paying a premium price to choose air travel and their plans are being messed up because they are receiving an unreliable service,” Byron said in November.
“In my view a monthly cancellation rate of more than five per cent warrants intervention by the federal government, and a demand for both an explanation and an improvement.”
The airport has also offered an incentive payment for airlines.