Qantas says 737 held for ransom at Canberra Airport

written by australianaviation.com.au | May 14, 2018
An file image of Canberra Airport.
Canberra Airport’s behaviour “beggars belief”, says Qantas.

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.

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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.

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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.”

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.

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

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.

Ryanair flies where it can land the best airport deals. (Rob Finlayson)

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.

Canberra Airport has been successful in attracting Qatar Airways as a new operator, but is having an ongoing stoush with its biggest customer in Qantas Airways. (Seth Jaworski)

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26 Comments

  • James

    says:

    Unreal.

  • Doug Bell

    says:

    There are always two sides to a story and the truth somewhere inbetween. That said, the Australian public now seeing the real “Benefits” of John Howard selling off the airports in the late 90’s early 200’s. You only have to see the parking charges and he fact that at Sydney the public has no choice, but to park in a car park to collect relatives who may not be able to use the various other options. Clearly some mid level employee at Canberra felt it appropriate to make a statement. There are other ways and in this case this reckless act could have had far worse consequences. Although I wish the pollies would be as equally inconvienced then maybe a few perils of travel maybe resolved!, but given the current lot, probaly not.

  • Red Barron

    says:

    Wow $20k demand and then blocking the aircraft. Great way to treat your biggest customer. The monopoly Canberra and Sydney have as well as being a leased agreement means they can nearly get away with price fixing. Bring on the high speed rail and watch the airport lease operators cry blue murder. $2k is a fair cost

  • Dave

    says:

    Well this is just insane, a ridiculous charge for a weather diversion. Profit before safety should be a breach of regulations
    Another reason for high speed rail to be progressed. Trains don’t need weather diversions!!

  • Q

    says:

    I dont blame the airport for going off at Qantas (and virgin although the problem is worse at Qantas). when you consider air fares can be as high as $600 one way on a small dash 8 (yes their is 717’s and 737 running but not very often) and then to have a high cancelation rate isnt good. qantas really need to fix this issue. i wonder if the goverment would consider letting Qatar carry domestic (or international passengers connecting in sydney) to add some competition to the route (and also qatars load factors which are terrible)

  • Aubrey

    says:

    The airline must arrange it’s emergency diversions in advance of the emergency? I think I need to find a dictionary and look up the meaning of emergency, I’m sure that “unplanned” will feature somewhere.
    PS Can’t believe that I’m on Qantas’s side here … good grief!

  • Sam

    says:

    Wow

  • Ben

    says:

    There HAS to be more to this story. QF is a regular operator to CBR and whilst it’s highly likely that this aircraft was operated by JetConnect not mainline… surely there is some surety that the bills would be paid. In fact it beggars belief that QF management DON’T have arrangements in place for such an international divert!
    Limited capacity isn’t really for airport management to handle… it’s more an ATC and Borderforce problem and the airlines have resources and plans to interact with those agencies in these situations. You don’t penalise your customers (one of your biggest at that) for your own organisations lack of resources and planning.
    CBR isn’t the only one. AVV charges when listed as an alternate as well. I’m not sure what reason they have for this… the airport is built and in operation, it’s not like you have to do anything extra when it’s an alternate.

  • Ram

    says:

    It’s a sad state of affairs … airport dictates such terms in a state of emergency.

  • Kervin

    says:

    Why have we not got a uber airline,thay are int everthing else

  • Jo Hein

    says:

    Canberra is the most stupid airport I have ever had the displeasure of landing at – there is no where fir your family to pick you up from they must park and cime and meet you and then go back ti the car etc etc. So what if the parking is free. When you have a 2 and hald hour drive to home that is just a further time waste in my opinion- espe ially after a 2 and a half hour drive to pick me uo already. Not everyobe has the money to stay overnight in Canberra – it’s hust too expensive.

  • Matt

    says:

    Maybe it’s got something to do with the AKL-SYD route being operated by Jetconnect?

  • Steve

    says:

    @q
    Did you ever wonder why airfares are so expensive to and from CBR?
    It could be perhaps that it is one of the most expensive airports in the world for its fees it charges airlines

  • Paul Brisbane

    says:

    Could only happen in the country’s money grabbing capital, the socialist comes out of me at these times and wonders how we got ourselves to this stage with airports owned by private enterprise. OOh that’s right politicians who ran out of money.

  • John U

    says:

    I would have loved for this pilot to communicate directly with ATC and got Airway clearance and push back clearance therefore the driver of the vehicle blocking the aircraft MUST get out of the way, it’s against CASA rules to interfere with the operation of an aircraft which is under the direction of ATC. Even if it was the Senior Safety Officer for the airfield! If ATC orders you to clear the position you are in you do as your told or you can expect a ATSB incident to be raised

  • John Hogan

    says:

    There is a sad truth about aviation that parallels smart phones. Apple manufacture a tiny proportion of all phones but make most of the profit in the sector. Privatized airports similarly employ a tiny proportion of people but make by far the greatest profit in aviation. More than Airbus and Boeing, much more than the airlines. Privatizing sounded ok but it’s been a disaster.

  • Dennis

    says:

    So Canberra Airport’s MD said “The diversion charge is a disincentive for planes to make unplanned landings at Canberra Airport without having a formal agreement in place.” With such attitude, the airport should have its operating licence revoked. There should be zero “disincentives” when it comes to unplanned/emergency landings. The ONLY thing that should be on a pilot’s mind is whether or not the runway can handle the aircraft. It’s a threat to safety to put into a pilot’s mind any other thought than that. And if the airport has a runway that can handle a particular aircraft, then it has to be responsible for having the appropriate infrastructure and emergency resources to deal with whatever lands.

  • Kev Curtis

    says:

    Ignoring the whole Qantas vs Canberra Airport issue, what about the poor passengers? Why are they the meat int he sandwich? At what point does “Deprivation of Liberty” or just plain kidnapping come into play because when you think about it, that’s pretty much what they have done.

  • Andy

    says:

    Why don’t we have an Uber airline ? Easy. Who would fly with a pilot who is paid below minimum wage ?

  • David Singe

    says:

    Canberra is a fantastic airport.
    Qantas apparently had chosen not to comply with an administrative agreement,
    Is it a legal requirement?
    Why is the Qantas service mentioned underperforming?
    Why would a smart airport operator feel the need to take such action?
    There seems much more to this.
    Government ownership gave us certainty but with mediocre facilities….look at the mess with 2 buildings in Perth and the hopeless car hire arrangement; or the old Adelaide shoebox without international service.
    Time for a train.
    To shake everyone up ..carriers airports and taxis in Melbourne

  • Colin of the North

    says:

    I believe a similar incident occured some years ago at Mangalore Airfield, Victoria.
    The story goes that an RAAF Hercules was stopped from departing due to unpaid fees.
    Supposedly a vehicle was parked in front of the Herc, but the pilots reversed using the planes
    propellers in revese setting!
    I am not really sure this actually happened but I do remember there was some news items
    publilished in the local press
    Anyone aware of this incident?

  • James

    says:

    @ Kev Curtis
    I agree the actions are a bit full on, but it’s no where near dep lib.
    If it all went too far the pax were able to get off no doubt.

  • T Brown

    says:

    what a joke that airports yet again, are not worried about passenger safety over their own profits
    common sense must take over
    Canberra airport must change their approach to having other airlines operating at this airport to allow the public a reasonable price on flights and so must all airports in this country as well
    take a good look at ourselves Australia and make this a better country for everyone travel around at a sensible price

  • Marcus

    says:

    You’d think they’d just invoice them later and now ask for a credit card payment.

  • Arbeysix

    says:

    High Speed Rail. Now. Please

  • Patrick

    says:

    I’m still amazed so many people still call for the high speed rail, which has been advocated for decades. It’s not there for a reason– ECONOMICALLY NOT VIABLE. You’ll need mass population density to support the network and huge investment, neither of which Australia possesses. Look at the countries with successful HSR are all with a large population, China transported almost 2 billion passengers through the high speed rail network and is still struggling to make a profit. Even if the high speed rail is built here, the ticket will probably cost double or triple the current airfare. How many of you are ready to pay for that? Are you gonna complain about the high ticket cost then?
    Everything is there or not there for a reason, get real people.

Comments are closed.

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