The Qatar-based global airline, Qatar Airways, has been accused of taking ‘extremely aggressive’ defensive action against five Australian women who sought legal resolution after they were forcibly strip-searched at gunpoint before their flight back to Sydney. Details of this shocking event were made known during Tuesday’s bilateral air services hearing.
The alarming incident under scrutiny saw hundreds of women aboard a Qatar Airways flight in 2020 forcibly removed from the aircraft at gunpoint by the airline’s staff and armed officers. The female passengers, as relayed by Marque Lawyers representatives, were forcibly subjected to bodily and, in some instances, vaginal examinations without their consent.
The women, under implicit threat of not being allowed back on the flight, were left in the dark about the reasons for these gross intrusions; a number of them conjectured it may have been related to a suspected terrorist threat. However, Qatari authorities maintained that these invasive searches were ‘necessary’ in an effort to find the mother of an abandoned newborn child.
This shocking revelation was one of the contributing factors leading to Transport Minister Catherine King’s decision to prohibit Qatar Airways from increasing the number of flights into Australia. Lawyers representing the affected women stated they were unsure if this episode had been utilised as a decoy by the government to validate this decision. However, they emphasized that the victims’ primary desire was to seek justice from Qatar Airways.
Legal counsel for the women stressed their longing for an apology from the airline and reassurance that such an ordeal would not befall another passenger. They expressed their dissatisfaction with the airline’s stern refusal to take responsibility for the horrendous incident.
Despite its fervent denial of culpability, Qatar Airways did release a public apology for the controversial event, which drew international media attention in October 2020. The airline announced on Monday that they have intentions of dispatching an unknown representative to partake in the upcoming public hearings.
Questions linger over whether Qatar Airways Chief Akbar Al Baker, who is currently residing in the US, will make an appearance at the parliamentary inquiry. This follows heated political debate over the Albanese government’s refusal to grant the airline’s request for an additional 28 flights in July. Al Baker has publicly dismissed the Transport Minister’s decision as “very unfair”.
Senators queried Al Baker’s expected absence from the hearing and raised their apprehensions about Qatar Airways ‘dodging questions’ about an ongoing corruption scandal involving members of the European parliament.
Among the issues to be examined by the inquiry over the coming fortnight is the question of whether a lack of competition is driving up airfare prices and negatively affecting the tourism and hospitality sectors. During Tuesday’s hearing, analysts stated that had Qatar’s application been accepted, increased flight capacity would have heightened competition, therefore lowering airfares.
In contrast, Tony Webber, the managing director of Airline Intelligence and Research, refuted Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s proposal that Qatar Airways could bring larger planes into the capital cities or consider flying into regional locations like Canberra. He points out that destinations such as Darwin, Adelaide, and regional ports are not commercially viable as demand is insufficient.
The Australian Travel Industry Association has expressed the urgent need for reform to confront the issues that have ‘long plagued’ the aviation industry and air ticket distribution landscape. The body argues that definitions of,’national interest’ need to be clarified and stresses the system, designed in 1944 to protect national carriers, needs to adapt to the contemporary context as Dean Iong, ATIA chief, concludes, “While times have changed, the system has not.”