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Skytrax defends naming Qatar airport world’s best despite strip-searches

written by Hannah Dowling and Adam Thorn | August 24, 2021
An internal photo of Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar (Arne Müseler/Wikicommons)

Skytrax has defended naming Qatar’s Hamad Airport as the “World’s Best” despite at least 18 women passengers being forced to undertake a genital examination without their consent last year.

The UK-based air travel review site said its prestigious award was “the customers’ choice”, but the TWU said the decision was “beyond belief” and the airport should have been disqualified.

In October 2020, 13 Australian women on board a Qatar Airways flight from Doha to Sydney were asked to leave their aircraft before being escorted to ambulances for an invasive check, supposedly carried out as staff tried to find the mother of a baby abandoned at the airport.

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A further five women from other countries, including the UK and France, were also asked to leave the plane bound for Sydney, and it was later confirmed that women from as many as 10 other flights were also subjected to the ordeal.

When questioned by Australian Aviation over the decision to award this year’s World’s Best Airport accolade to Hamad International, Skytrax said while the company manages the customer satisfaction survey, “we do not select which airports are voted”.

“This is the customer’s choice and this is the process that has been used for the World Airport Awards since their inception,” the organisation said.

Known as the “Oscars of the aviation industry”, Skytrax has facilitated the annual airport awards since 1999. Over 500 airports worldwide are eligible, with the winners determined through its customer satisfaction survey.

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According to the Skytrax website, the survey was conducted between August 2020 and July 2021. The website also states that all entries are screened by Skytrax, including user/IP information, in order to remove “duplicate or ineligible entries”.

TWU state secretary for NSW and Queensland, Richard Olsen, who initially spoke out in support of the women involved in the incident, said Hamad International Airport should have been disqualified for the title of World’s Best Airport following the “extremely serious” reports of “illegal invasive searches” of women following the instruction of airport staff.

“​​It’s beyond belief that Skytrax has named the Hamad International Airport ‘World’s Best Airport’,” Olsen said.

“Skytrax says that the ‘World’s Best Airport’ award is based on customer surveys – I’ll bet they didn’t speak to any of the women who were subjected to these horrendous examinations when deciding who to give an award to.

“Skytrax should immediately revoke the award. Anything less is an insult to the women who were subjected to these invasive searches.”

Early reports of the incident suggest the women involved, which included 13 Australians, were ”distraught” and “couldn’t believe what had happened”, as they were pulled from their long-delayed flights and subject to intimate examinations, with no explanation.

Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said at the time that the incident was “a grossly, grossly disturbing, offensive, concerning set of events”.

“It is not something that I have ever heard of occurring in my life, in any context. We have made our views very clear to Qatari authorities on this matter,” Minister Payne said.

Human rights organisations also spoke out against the treatment of the women involved, with many suggesting that conducting such intimate examinations without informed consent could be considered assault.

“I don’t know of any law in Qatar that obligates the authorities to conduct forced gynecological exams,” Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, told the New York Times. “Any woman of childbearing age became a suspect. This was not treated as a public health matter, but as a criminal matter. And even in criminal cases, there’s due process.”

Authorities also faced criticism for taking almost a month to publicly apologise for the incident and seemingly attempting to shift the narrative to the premature baby. Guardian Australia also reported that it had spoken to a number of women who were searched and none had received an apology or offer of compensation from Qatar.

Four months after the incident, in February this year, Qatar had still to provide the Australian federal government with its crucial report into the incident.

One of the Australian women searched spoke anonymously to the ABC and said authorities locked the ambulance door before telling her to undress.

“When I got in there, and there was a lady with a mask on and then the authorities closed the ambulance behind me and locked it,” she said. “They never explained anything.

“She told me to pull my pants down and that I needed to examine my vagina. I said ‘I’m not doing that’ and she did not explain anything to me. She just kept saying, ‘We need to see it, we need to see it’.”

The woman continued that she was eventually let out of the ambulance and ran over to the other girls but added there was “nowhere for me to run”. She eventually removed her clothes and was inspected, and touched, by a female nurse.

“Everyone had gone white and was shaking. I was very scared at that point, I didn’t know what the possibilities were.”

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