Changes brought about by the collapse of airline capacity into Australia is allowing Qatar Airways to plug a hole in its network. Long barred from operating flights to Brisbane by constraints in an air services agreement, Qatar Airways now flies into the city. But it isn’t a permanent arrangement, and the long-term future of the Brisbane flights is uncertain.
Constraints in air services agreement blocked Brisbane flights
Qatar and Australia’s existing bilateral air services agreement limits Qatar Airways to 21 flights per week to Australia’s biggest international airports – Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Perth.
Those 21 weekly services amount to three daily flights. Before the travel downturn, Qatar Airways had prioritized flights to Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth. The airline also operated a second daily flight to Sydney. Qatar Airways got around that by operating the second flight as a continuing service to Canberra.
As the air services agreement did not include Adelaide in the group of four airports, Qatar’s pre-pandemic flights there operated outside the weekly limits.
But the agreement did include Brisbane in the group of four. As a result, Qatar Airways flights to Brisbane never happened due to the operational restrictions imposed by the air services agreement.
It was not for want of trying. Qatar Airways long wanted to fly to Brisbane. But last year, COVID-19 and the upheaval around long-haul flying shifted the status quo. Airlines slashed capacity into Australia as they suspended flights and bunkered down to ride out the chaos.
Ongoing travel upheaval gets Qatar Airways into Brisbane
But Qatar Airways bucked the trend and kept operating many of its flights. At the same time, the Australian Government loosened rules in air services agreements to keep essential travel flowing. That allowed Qatar Airways to start flying to Brisbane.
In March 2020, Qatar Airways began operating a thrice-weekly Boeing 777-300ER service between Doha and Brisbane. QR898 continues onto Auckland, however, the flight cannot pick up Auckland-bound passengers in Brisbane.
While not without some hiccups, QR898 has mostly kept flying since then. The Boeing 777 departs Doha on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. It takes 14 hours to cover the 7,625 miles (12,344 kilometers) between the two cities. The additional 1,419 miles (2,298 kilometers) between Brisbane and Auckland takes three hours and 20 minutes to fly. The return flight operates as QR899.
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Qatar Airways would like permanent access into Brisbane
When long-haul travel starts to normalize in the southwest Pacific, the Australian Government is likely to start enforcing the fine print in its air services agreements. That will put Qatar Airways in a quandary. How to cover four airports with the desired daily services when you are only allowed 21 flights?
Qatar Airways could operate the Brisbane flight with a stopover in a secondary Australian international airport. Say Doha – Adelaide – Brisbane or Doha – Cairns – Brisbane. Like Qatar’s tag flight between Sydney and Canberra, such flights would get around the capacity limits.
Ideally, Qatar Airways would like Australia and Qatar to revisit their air services agreement. Last year, citing the generous capacity into Australia allowed to competitors Emirates and Etihad, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker said he was campaigning for extra capacity to Australia.
Saying Qatar’s request was “reasonable,” Al Baker said he would happily send his planes into Brisbane on a permanent daily basis if allowed.
That was 12 months ago, and there has been no shift in the rules. With flights to Australia now few and far between and hardly anyone allowed into the country, the Australian Government possibly feels no there is no reason to change the rules right now.
But once flying starts to normalize again, possibly as soon as next year, Qatar’s capacity constraints into Australia will come into the spotlight again. The Brisbane flights will be one of the pawns in play.