Australia says Qatar strip-searches of women in 2020 a factor in blocking extra flights

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia said a strip-search of women at Qatar’s main airport in 2020 played a part in its decision this year to stop Qatar Airways from selling more flights to Australia, denying it was acting due to pressure from rival Qantas Airways.

The claim brings a new element to a controversy surrounding the Australian Labor government’s relationship with Qantas which had lobbied against a Qatar Airways request to increase its flights.

The conservative opposition has accused Labor of suppressing competition to protect Qantas and launched a Senate inquiry into its decision.

Speaking to reporters in Canberra on Thursday, Australian Transport Minister Catherine King said invasive body searches of female passengers, including five Australian women, at Hamad International Airport in 2020 was “context” for the decision to deny the airline more flights to Australia in July this year.

“It wasn’t the only factor. It was a factor,” King said, referring to the incident where women were taken off a Qatar Airways plane and forced to undergo medical examination after the discovery of an abandoned baby at the airport. The Qatar government later apologised.

It was “nonsense” to suggest that adding more Qatar Airways flights would have put downward pressure on international fares, King added. Antitrust regulator the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has said more Qatar Airways flights would have lowered fares.

Last week the ACCC sued Qantas for breaching consumer law with the sale of tickets to some 8,000 flights after they were cancelled in mid-2022.

Qantas’s CEO of 15 years, Alan Joyce, had been due to retire in November but brought his departure forward citing criticism about the company’s past actions, leaving the airline’s first female CEO, Vanessa Hudson, to start in the role this week.

Qantas has said it is reviewing the ACCC lawsuit but that the alleged wrongdoing took place at a time of unprecedented disruption in the aviation industry.

(Reporting by Byron Kaye and Kirsty Needham; Editing by Michael Perry)