Radio transcript - ABC Sydney

CRAIG REUCASSEL: It’s 18 minutes past seven here on ABC Radio Sydney with Craig Reucassel. Look, when was the last time your plane was delayed or cancelled? Airlines will soon be forced to explain why they cancel flights at Sydney Airport as part of a Federal Government crackdown on slot‑hoarding and anti‑competitive behaviour. Catherine King is the Federal Minister for Transport and joins us now. Thanks for joining us, Catherine.

CATHERINE KING: Good morning, Craig.

CRAIG REUCASSEL: So, Minister, what is slot‑hoarding, and how are you going to stop airlines doing it?

CATHERINE KING: Well, basically what we’ve announced yesterday is a couple of things. First, I want to say what we haven’t announced. There’s no changes to the curfew at Sydney Airport, and there’s no changes to the 80 movements per hour, that cap, as we call it.

But the Demand Management System at Sydney Airport hasn’t been reformed for about 27 years, and what we’ve announced yesterday is a few things, that we’ll be doing an audit of the slots at Sydney Airport, and doing that regularly on an annual basis, publishing that, requiring airlines to explain the reasons for cancellation and actually publishing those reasons for cancellation.

And then also as part of that audit introducing a capacity for where there does appear to be airlines where they’ve deliberately hung on to the slot to land or depart their plane at that time, and really not used it and been consistently not using it, so that blocks out any other airline that might want to be able to use that slot, that there’s then a capacity for us to impose some penalties on that, and then eventually allocate that slot to another airline.


CATHERINE KING: So that doesn’t – yeah. The other thing we’ve done, which, you know, you really would have seen that on Monday, is that when there’s really significant weather events there’s no capacity for the airport to catch up, and the problem we’ve always got is when Sydney goes down, the entire network goes down, so it’s not just that it’s delays in and out of Sydney, there’s delays to ongoing flights; Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane, all of the above.

CRAIG REUCASSEL: Well, there’s two separate issues here, I guess. The first one’s about the fact that, I mean there was that inquiry last year in August before the House of Representatives Inquiry, and the Sydney Airport Executive, Rob Wood suggested that the major airlines kind of used weather and air traffic control to justify flight cancellations, and this was clearly a motivation preventing other entrants getting into the airport and other people competing with them. So, by doing this change here, you’re going to remove their capacity to do that? Is that the idea here?

CATHERINE KING: Well, at least the first start is actually auditing it and requiring transparency from them, so there’s, beyond doubt if they are doing it, then we can do something about it, but also then if there are, if it’s because of weather events, or it is because there’s been problems with air traffic control or they’ve had illnesses with crew or pilots, and all of those things happening at the moment, then we know and there’s transparency about why that’s occurred as opposed to, that they’re actually just, you know, basically booking flights that they’ve got no intention of actually ever delivering. And that’s really the issue here.

CRAIG REUCASSEL: I should point out that Virgin and Qantas deny that they actually have that practice.

CATHERINE KING: Yes, of course.

CRAIG REUCASSEL: Let’s just move on to this rain issue, because as you say, once rain occurs, it creates havoc. Under the previous system, is the problem that you couldn’t then shift the flights that were missed into the next hour because they’d then have to go to that hour itself? What is changing; how are you going to fix this problem, when rain strikes, of causing chaos in Sydney.

CATHERINE KING: Yeah, so only in the cause of severe weather events, so you know, it rains all the time; that just happens, they’re normal events, but if it’s really closed the runway or if there’s been a major security issue that’s closed the runway, we’ll lift the 80 movement flights per hour from 80 to 85 for a two‑hour period only, just to allow the airport to catch up.

So, it doesn’t increase the number of flights, it doesn’t mean you can suddenly schedule new flights in that day. It just moves, you know, moves flights into that period, but only capped up to 85 to allow a catch‑up period.

CRAIG REUCASSEL: Okay, interesting. Just in terms of this, I mean a lot of people are sceptical of the reason that flights are cancelled at times; I think people particularly think, you know, you put on two or three flights, then you cancel it so you’ll put everyone on the same plane so that basically, you know, you’re not flying as many planes, which may have other reasons. But in the US and EU, airline passengers are actually paid compensation if flights are delayed by more than three hours, so you can actually be paid for that. Is the Federal Government looking at that at all as a way of again creating a disincentive for the airlines to kind of cancel flights willy‑nilly?

CATHERINE KING: Yeah, absolutely. So we’ve got an Aviation White Paper about to publish in the next few months, and that is one of the issues that we’ve been taking submissions on. There’s a challenge with this. On the one hand, I think, you know, that’s really good in terms of that, I’ve seen how the European system operates. The other problem that we have to weigh up though is that airlines then risk‑factor that in to the pricing of air tickets, so it can potentially lead to the increase in air tickets in some places as well.

So there’s a balance that we’ve got to strike here. But there’s been a raft of issues. So actually trying to think about, you know, ideas about whether there’s an independent complaints mechanism for people because you’ve got issues with flight credits, trying to actually get a refund from airlines has been extremely difficult for people, the rules post and pre‑COVID and then post‑COVID again have all changed, so it depends on when you booked your flight.

So it’s really confusing for people and incredibly frustrating. So, yep, through the Aviation White Paper, we’re looking at that. The reforms to the Demand Management System we announced yesterday are just part of a suite of reforms for aviation right the way across the board.

CRAIG REUCASSEL: Okay. It is 7.24. We’re speaking to Catherine King, who is the Federal Minister for Transport. Now you’ve gotten rid of slot‑hoarding domestically here for Qantas and Virgin and others, and supposedly part of that is to open up more competition. Obviously you haven’t done this though at the international level. There was the debate previously about Qatar Airlines wanting to double their spots, and your government said no to it; you said no to that happening. If it’s going to create more competition in the domestic level, surely we should be doing the same thing at an international level, and that will bring prices down?

CATHERINE KING: Well, I guess there’s a sense of a bit of confusion there, because the international airlines, including Qatar, who are allocated spots bilaterally through our bilateral agreements, now they may be able to use some of the slots that are freed up through this crack down on competition, so that’s certainly another way in which they are used; other international airlines might do is same.

The bilateral agreements, I’ve got five or six before me at any one time. I’ve got to look at the conditions of where airports are up to, where aviation’s up to time, where other airlines in terms of the international market, who’ve got allocated spots into the major airports; I’ve got to go through all of those decisions. And they’re pretty routine decisions of government that we make all the time. And so we did that with Qatar recently, increased the spots for Turkish Airways and Vietnam, so you’ll start to see those coming into train this year as well.

The good news for people is that despite the incredibly high prices we saw, because demand really roared back much more quickly than we expected, and fuel was driving a lot of the costs in air fares, a lot of that is now coming off the boil a bit, so you’re starting to see both certainly domestic, and certainly international air fares starting to come down, which is a good thing for the travelling public.

CRAIG REUCASSEL: All right. Thanks so much for being with us, Minister, I really appreciate that. Catherine King there, the Federal Minister for Transport. Do you think this is going to fix the problem? Are you a regular flyer? Give us a call.