PM reveals talks with Virgin chiefs about block on Qatar flights

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Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has confirmed he spoke with Virgin Australia executives about the government’s decision to block Qatar Airways from increasing its flights, amid claims the move has punished consumers with higher prices.

Albanese revealed the conversation in parliament on Tuesday after facing more questions from the Coalition over what it has called a “sweetheart deal” to protect Qantas from greater competition from foreign airlines.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (right) and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton during question time.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

But the prime minister denied having any conversation with outgoing Qantas chief Alan Joyce or any other executive from the airline before the June decision to prevent Qatar gaining more access to the Australian market.

Transport Minister Catherine King also hit back at critics of the decision by telling parliament she had made the ruling without any regard to any one company’s commercial interests, in a clear reference to Qantas.

King also claimed the previous government had placed restrictions on Qatar Airways in the past because it was concerned it would “dump” capacity on the Australian market.

Albanese told parliament on Monday he had held a conversation with someone about the Qatar decision before it was made, but he did not say who that person was, leading Opposition Leader Peter Dutton to ask on Tuesday whether the talks were with Virgin.

“Did the prime minister have any conversations with the CEO or any senior executive of Virgin Australia regarding the Qatar application before the decision was made?” Dutton asked.

“Yes,” Albanese replied, without saying anything more.

Later, Coalition whip Bert van Manen asked the prime minister if he had held any talks with Qantas executives including Joyce before the Qatar decision.

“No,” Albanese replied, without elaborating.

Virgin is a key partner of Qatar and carries passengers in the domestic market to connect with Qatar’s international flights.

The government is under fire from the Coalition and the Greens on the Qatar decision, with Dutton warning that Australians will pay more for their holidays and Greens leader Adam Bandt calling on the government to release documents that explain the impact of its move on customers.

The Greens are seeking support in the Senate for a formal motion that would ask the government to release the documents, while the Coalition wants a Senate inquiry into the handling of Qantas and Qatar.

With the Coalition launching a debate on airline competition in parliament, King claimed a decision to allow more flights by Qatar would not have cut the cost of flights.

“I’ve not based this decision on any one company or any one person’s commercial interest, but on the national interest,” she told parliament.

“This week alone, we are allowing almost 500 flights into Asia and into international hubs where travellers can access the rest of the world, including into Europe.

“I know that Australians are paying too much for their domestic tickets. More international flights from Qatar would not have helped that.”

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