Qantas chief Alan Joyce has reignited the ongoing feud between the airline and Canberra Airport, accusing it of acting like Somali pirates and engaging in appalling behaviour.
At an industry event in Canberra on Thursday (24 May), Mr Joyce again accused the airport of holding one of Qantas’s planes to ransom when it diverted to Canberra in March last year and demanding an $18,000 payment before it was allowed to leave, according to media reports.
“I’ve never seen it in my nearly 30 years in the aviation industry where a pilot’s been told to pass over a credit card of $18,000 otherwise the aircraft can’t go,” Mr Joyce said.
“Maybe the airport should be called ‘The Canberra Pirates’ because you wouldn’t have this in Somalia.”
Canberra Airport CEO Stephen Byron had thought the bruising row with Qantas, sparked by the airport’s public campaign against the airline’s high cancellation rates on the Sydney run, had cooled after talks with Qantas executives but Mr Joyce’s comments, together with former competition watchdog Graeme Samuel’s attack on the airport’s ‘monopoly behaviour’, has thrown avgas on a simmering situation.
Mr Byron denied the airport had demanded any such fee last March when the Qantas plane was on the tarmac and said the issue was around unauthorised diversions that threatened safety at Canberra, and the airline allowing an agreement on diversions to lapse.
He said there was only an eight-minute delay and the issue was settled in 24 hours and a new agreement struck with Qantas.
Mr Byron admitted that a vehicle was parked behind the plane but there was no payment made at the time.
“It is true we said ‘we want a dialogue before the plane leaves and a commitment that these unauthorised landings do not occur again’ and we got that commitment,” he told ABC radio.
Clearly exasperated by the claims, Mr Byron said the last time Qantas was in Canberra it was saying to the Australian public and Australian Government that the company was going broke and needed a Government bailout and a Government guarantee.
Mr Byron said that on Wednesday the airport had had a “very positive” meeting with the head of Qantas Domestic, Andrew David, and both parties had committed to working together, but Mr Joyce’s comments “fly in the face of it and are a complete repudiation of the meeting and positive conduct we had the day before.”
Professor Samuel, a former chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, is now the chair of airlines lobby group Airlines for Australia and New Zealand, which launched a report on airport privatisation at Parliament House on Thursday that accused the country’s airports of profiteering and gouging customers.
He echoed Mr Joyce’s claims that Canberra Airport had demanded payment before allowing the Qantas plane to leave and also compared it to a third world country, Fairfax Media reported.
“I can’t contemplate any place in the world, except perhaps Somalia or perhaps Nairobi, where an aircraft would, having had to make an unscheduled landing because of weather, had a car parked in front of the aircraft, saying you cannot move until the airline provides a Visa card to extract a charge of $18,000,” he said.
“That’s not Australia. That’s a third world country. I’m assured by Qantas it doesn’t even happen in third world countries they are involved in.”
Mr Byron said Professor Samuel’s comments had to be seen in the context of his work for Qantas, which with other airlines was wanting a different deal with airports around the country, not just Canberra, and a different regulatory regime.
In a statement from Airlines for Australia and New Zealand, Professor Samuel said privatisation of Australia’s airports promised more efficient management of assets, investment and lower prices, but without an effective regulatory regime, it had resulted in higher costs for both airlines and passengers.
The group’s CEO Dr Alison Roberts said Australia’s airports were monopolists.
“What this report reveals is the ability of the airports to use this monopoly position to earn excessive profits, and that they have been doing so in the absence of a credible regulatory threat. This is a trend that began over a decade ago and shows no sign of stopping,” she said.
The report’s release comes ahead of the Productivity Commission Inquiry into the Economic Regulation of Airports, and after the ACCC’s most recent airport monitoring report, about which Professor Samuel said: “Consumers are the ones who ultimately lose in this scenario, whether it’s the exorbitant landing and service fees paid by airlines on the passenger’s behalf, their car parking fee, taxi surcharge, or the bottle of water they buy in the terminal.”
The Performance and Impact of Australia’s Airports Since Privatisation can be found here.