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UAE carriers only use half their flights, says Sydney Airport CEO

written by Jake Nelson | September 20, 2023

Les Bushell shot this Emirates 777-200LR on approach to Perth.

Sydney Airport CEO Geoff Culbert has lashed UAE-based airlines for using only half their allotment of flights as Qatar Airways’ expansion continues to be blocked.

Speaking before the Senate Select Committee on Bilateral Air Service Agreements (ASAs), Culbert revealed that, though Australia’s agreement with the UAE allows for 168 flights per week into the four main gateways of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, only 84 of these are being used.

Qatar, which has been barred from expanding its weekly services into the major airports, is using all 28 of its weekly flights, said Culbert.

“We have an airline that wants to add new services immediately, but they can’t because their bilateral is full. At the same time we have 84 flights a week from the UAE that aren’t being used at all. That’s just inefficient,” he said.

“It leaves a gap of 25 per cent in the Middle East market, less choice for consumers, and ultimately higher prices.”


In the airport’s official submission to the inquiry, Culbert advocated for increased liberalisation of bilateral ASAs and more “open skies” arrangements.

“Increased unrestricted air rights capacity agreements whereby market dynamics determine potential routes for foreign carriers with no restrictions on services to and from Australian capital cities would deliver considerable improvements and efficiencies in international aviation,” he said.

“For context, the United States has open skies agreements with 130 nations and Singapore has more than 60. Australia has only seven.”

Culbert pointed to the ongoing stoush over Qatar as an example of inefficiencies in the current bilateral ASA system.

“At Sydney Airport, we are currently seeing a 25 per cent shortfall in recovery on the Middle East market when compared to pre-COVID,” he said.

“With 50 per cent of weekly permitted flights from the UAE not being utilised, while Qatar is prevented from increasing their capacity, consumers are paying the price with less choice and ultimately higher airfares.”

The Senate established the inquiry earlier this month into the reasons for the government’s decision to block the expansion of Qatar’s air rights, a move which was supported by Qantas but staunchly opposed by Qatar codeshare partner Virgin Australia. Queensland’s state Labor government has also signalled it would approve Qatar’s expansion.

The motion to establish the inquiry narrowly passed the Senate, with Labor and the Greens opposed while the rest of the crossbench sided with the Coalition. Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie, who put forward the motion, said the decision had left “everyone in the aviation industry” except Qantas “scratching their heads”.

“Every other major airline, former chairs of the ACCC, several state Labor governments, Australian airports, customers, business leaders, economists and major tourism operators have all called on this Labor government to review or reverse this decision,” she said.

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