Federal Transport and Infrastructure Minister Catherine King has pointed to the 2020 invasive search incident at Hamad International Airport in Doha as a factor in her decision to block extra flights by Qatar Airways into Australia’s four major airports.
While Minister King continued to stress that no single factor had spurred the decision, which she has repeatedly said was made according to the “national interest”, she told reporters at a press conference on Thursday morning that the incident had played a part in her deliberations.
“If you remember, we had multiple media requests on behalf of the women who had been escorted at gunpoint after a Qatar airlines flight and had then been subject on the tarmac in ambulances to invasive body searches. We’d had multiple media inquiries about that,” she said.
“As I’ve said repeatedly, I made this decision in the national interest, and there is no one factor that I will point to that swayed my decision one way or the other.
“This is the only airline [where] something like that … has happened. And so, I can’t say that I wasn’t aware of it. But certainly, it wasn’t the only factor. It was a factor.”
The incident, which drew widespread international condemnation, involved 13 Australian women aboard Qatar Airways flight QR908 from Doha to Sydney who were asked to leave the plane to be escorted to ambulances for the invasive check, apparently carried out because staff found a premature baby abandoned in a bathroom.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong on Wednesday confirmed that she had spoken to the Qatari government about the incident, but not about the Qatar Airways decision.
“I initiated the call to discuss a range of bilateral matters. One of those, obviously, is in relation to the Hamad Airport incident. That’s something I spoke about in Opposition. Obviously it was a very distressing event for the women concerned,” she said.
“The bilateral air services agreement was not discussed in the call.”
The move to block Qatar’s expansion – an expansion which was opposed by Qantas but supported by Virgin Australia – has become a political headache for the Albanese Government, with polling this week showing 59 per cent of Labor voters would support extra flights, and the Senate narrowly voting to establish an inquiry into the matter.
Minister King at Thursday’s press conference argued that Qatar could increase its capacity into Australia by flying to non-major airports like Canberra, or by using larger planes like the Airbus A380 on its existing services, without needing to boost frequency into Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth.
“The very reason we have four major airports, and then we have regional airports – the very reason for that is we want to try to get international tourism into our regional markets,” she said.
“Now, Qatar could commence re-flying back into [Canberra] Airport today. They could fly into Darwin. They could fly into Adelaide. They could fly into Cairns and they could fly into the Gold Coast and into Darwin. They are choosing not to do so.
“They could also, on the flights where they’re not flying the Airbus 380, increase passenger seats into those major airports immediately, and we would encourage them to do so.”