The southern Australian skies between Melbourne and Adelaide are crisscrossed with ghost flights operated by Qatar Airways, according to reports in The Guardian.
Empty and almost-empty 354-seater passenger jets have been flying daily between the two cities as a result of a loophole in Australia’s aviation laws being exploited by the gulf state’s flag carrier.
1. Ongoing dispute
The revelation comes amid an ongoing dispute between Qatar and the Australian government over bilateral air rights. Qatar has applied to almost double its current weekly quota of 28 flights from Doha to Australia’s major airports.
Those 28 flights are currently spread between four cities (Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth, and Sydney) meaning one return flight per day can operate to each. Qatar wants an additional 21 flights.
Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has refused the extras, insisting the increase would not be in Australia’s national interest. The refusal has been seen by some as a protectionist measure for Australia’s Qantas, which has benefitted from high demand for international flights post-COVID-19 but suffered from supply and capacity issues.
The refusal is also essentially being viewed as a “diplomatic incident response” to Qatar’s treatment of multiple Australian women who were forced off a Qatar flight at gunpoint and intimately examined after an abandoned newborn was found in Hamad International airport in October 2020.
The women are suing the airline and recently Transport Minister Catherine King told them: “as most Australians were, I was shocked by what happened to you”.
“Your experience remains in my thoughts, as well as those of my colleagues.” King added, noting the government was not considering additional bilateral air rights with Qatar.
But it appears the lack of permission has not prevented Qatar using a workaround to ignore the rules and operate extra flights.
Adelaide is not considered a ‘major airport’ and there are no limits on how many flights to non-major Australian destinations Qatar can operate. Qatar therefore made a switcheroo, changing the name of the final destination on its Doha–Melbourne flight to make it Doha–Melbourne–Adelaide instead. In this way, it has effectively introduced a second daily flight to Melbourne, using Adelaide as a proxy.
The ‘illegal’ second flight goes direct from Doha to Melbourne, where it makes a six-hour layover then flies on, empty or near-empty, to Adelaide. It is empty because domestic passengers are not allowed to purchase tickets on the Melbourne–Adelaide leg. The only passengers aboard the second leg of the journey are those who have chosen to do a non-direct flight from Doha to Adelaide. These are relatively few, numbering in the single digits or even zero, according to Guardian reporting.
The return from Adelaide back to Melbourne is better frequented, by between 20 and 35 passengers.
Still, demand is so low on both Melbourne-Adelaide legs of these trips they are considered ghost flights – the term for a service operated with zero passengers or fewer than 10% capacity. Multiple Australian aviation insiders told The Guardian that Qatar is “taking the piss” and operating flights that “are primarily functioning as second daily Melbourne services”.