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Australia cites ‘strip-search incident’ as factor in block on extra Qatar Airways flights

The opposition leader has raised concerns about the transparency of Australia’s transport minister’s responses in the ongoing saga.

Australia’s government revealed that a strip-search incident involving women at Doha’s main airport in 2020 had played a pivotal role in its recent decision to restrict Qatar Airways from increasing its flight operations.

Australia’s Transport Minister Catherine King acknowledged that the strip-searching of a group of Australian women at a Doha airport did indeed play a role in her decision to reject Qatar Airways’ proposal to double its flights to Australia, in comments made during a press conference held on Thursday.

This admission comes six weeks after she initially denied any connection between the two.

Denying any influence from Qantas Airways, the Australian official argued that the controversial decision is based on broader context, which includes concerns about passenger safety.

“Certainly, for context, this is the only airline that has had something like that happen, 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,” King said during a press conference at Canberra Airport.

After further prodding, King added: “What I have said is that’s a fact, that is context that is there,” suggesting that while she had not directly pointed to the incident, she acknowledged it as a crucial backdrop to the decision.

As the scrutiny intensified, the transport minister ultimately confirmed that her decision had indeed been influenced by the incident. “I can’t pretend it doesn’t exist, like, it exists, it’s a context,” she said.

The official was referring to the incident involving a group of Australian women who were forcibly strip searched and examined at Hamad International Airport in 2020 after the discovery of an abandoned newborn baby girl in a restroom at a terminal.

Australia’s government continues to face intense scrutiny since rejecting a Qatar Airways bid for 21 extra weekly flights to various airports across the country, including Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane.

Officials from the government, tourism sector and business groups are collectively advocating for greater transparency regarding the reasons behind the refusal to grant additional flights to Qatar, particularly in light of Qantas’ reported lobbying efforts.

In 2021, Doha News learned that the security official responsible for ordering the invasive searches was charged a hefty fine and given a six-month prison sentence which he then appealed, but was upheld by the Qatari courts.

Investigations at the time also found that the mother proceeded to board a flight after discarding the baby. Sources had told Doha News that the baby was taken to Qatar’s Orphans Care Center (Dreama), where authorities have ensured she is taken care of.

The Qatar government has issued an apology for the incident.

However, the group of women penned a letter to King in light of the Qatar Airways request for an additional 21 flights into the country.

“If you remember, we had multiple … 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,” King said at an event held to launch a green paper on aviation.

King weighed in on a letter she received from the women’s lawyers regarding their experiences, “which are, pretty frankly, not anything we would expect anyone, and certainly not Australians travelling on an international airline, to experience”.

The June 27 letter from the women claimed Qatar Airways “is not fit to carry passengers around the globe let alone to major Australian airports.”

“When you are considering Qatar Airways’ bid for extra landing rights, we beg you to consider its insensitive and irresponsible treatment of us and its failure to ensure the safety and dignity of its passengers.”

King wrote a letter to the women on 10 July notifying them of her choice to decline Qatar’s application on the same day the decision was made, reports said.

Meanwhile, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has raised concerns about the transparency of King’s most recent responses on the ongoing saga, prompting him to demand clarity on the matter.

“Maybe she’s forgotten what the truth is, she’s told so many the versions. The fact is, we’re not getting an honest answer out of the government,” he said.

The latest revelation adds a fresh layer of complexity to the controversy surrounding the Australian Labor government’s relationship with Qantas. The aviation giant was said to have actively lobbied against Qatar Airways’ request to expand its flight services, alleging potential adverse effects on competition.

The conservative opposition in Australia has accused the Labor government of suppressing competition to shield Qantas from competitors. In response, they have initiated a Senate inquiry to investigate the government’s decision.

Despite King describing claims that increasing Qatar Airways’ flights would have led to reduced international fares as “nonsense,” the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) said more flights by the Gulf carrier would have had a positive impact on prices.

The ACCC recently filed a lawsuit against Qantas for violating consumer protection laws by selling tickets for around 8,000 flights that were subsequently cancelled in mid-2022.

This legal action has intensified scrutiny on Qantas, prompting its long-serving CEO, Alan Joyce, to advance his retirement, citing criticism of the company’s past actions.

Earlier this week, Vanessa Hudson assumed the role of Qantas’s first female CEO amidst the ongoing challenges and legal proceedings.

While Qantas has acknowledged the ACCC’s lawsuit, it nevertheless maintained that the alleged misconduct occurred during a period of unprecedented turbulence in the aviation industry, further complicating the unfolding drama in Australia’s aviation sector.

Qantas lobbying

Opposition frontbencher Michaelia Cash has suggested Joyce should be summoned to appear before the Senate inquiry regarding the government’s refusal to allow Qatar Airways to increase its flights.

“Alan Joyce should be called to give evidence to the Senate inquiry into the Albanese government Qatar Airways debacle,” Cash said on Wednesday, according to reports.

“We need to hear directly from him about whether he or other Qantas executives had any discussions with the prime minister or anyone from the government about Qatar Airways applying for more services to Australia.”

“We need to know who from the government he lobbied and when,” Cash added.

Meanwhile, Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie accused the government of shielding and running a “protection racket” for Qantas, as the transport minister declined to provide further details regarding the decision made in the “national interest.”

“Who is the government really protecting when it says this decision was in the national interest?” McKenzie said on Tuesday.

Earlier this week, Australia’s prime minister rejected claims that the government had made an agreement with Qantas to safeguard the national airline’s market share following its controversial decision.

“I received no lobbying from Qantas about this issue,” Anthony Albanese said, adding “my government supports competition, but global aviation is not a free-for-all.”

“Qatar Airways can add more seats to Australia today, right now,” the prime minister said.