The head of Canberra Airport has ripped into Qantas after the latest official figures showed that the airline cancelled more flights between Sydney and Canberra than it did between any other two of the 37 airports in Australia.
In July, Qantas scheduled 923 flights between Sydney and Canberra and cancelled 103 of them - 11 per cent of its total. Qantas and QantasLink flights between Sydney and all the other state capitals had far lower cancellation rates.
The high cancellation rate prompted Canberra Airport's chief executive Stephen Byron to accuse the national carrier of "picking on" Canberra.
And Canberra MP David Smith waded in by calling for compensation for passengers whose flights get bumped.
"It's driving me nuts," the member for Bean said. "Every month, you can guarantee there's a chance your flight's cancelled."
Airline executive and former transport minister John Sharpe also accused Qantas of "gaming" the allocation of airport slots to stifle competition, forcing up airfares and causing high rates of flight cancellations.
Mr Sharpe, who is deputy chair of Rex Airlines, told the parliamentary Standing Committee on Economics that the airline industry was "very heavily concentrated" and the major carriers were using the system to block competitors at the expense of passengers who faced high airfares and poor standards of service.
On the Canberra-Sydney situation, Mr Byron has written to Andrew David, chief executive of Qantas' domestic operations, saying: "Andrew, Qantas's treatment of Canberra passengers flying into Sydney Airport is a national disgrace.
"Enough is enough - the cancellation rate needs to be below five per cent, and even that is pretty poor."
Qantas says that it cancels on routes where it has lots of flights because then the inconvenience to passengers is less - there's another flight soon is the reasoning.
In the past, Qantas has blamed air traffic control difficulties in Sydney but Mr Byron said that this explanation doesn't wash because other airlines hadn't been similarly affected. On top of that, Melbourne has more flights to and from Sydney but fewer cancellations.
"The cancellation rate is often five times worse than Virgin's on the same route (Canberra-Sydney)," Mr Byron told Mr David.
"It is more than 10 times worse than Qantas's flights into Sydney from Adelaide, Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast, Dubbo, Port Macquarie; and it is five times worse than Qantas's flights into Sydney from Hobart, Albury, Cairns, Wagga Wagga - and it is twice as worse as Qantas's flights into Sydney anywhere else.
"Has been for more than six months, so it's not a coincidence."
On the latest official figures, Qantas cut more than a hundred flights between Canberra and Sydney in July - 53 flights to Sydney (11.5 per cent of its flights on the route) and 50 from Sydney to Canberra (10.8 per cent of the total).
In June, it cancelled 58 flights to Sydney (12.6 per cent of its total on the route) and 53 to Canberra (10.8 per cent of its total).
The July cancellations between Canberra and Sydney are the highest rate of cancellation by Qantas on any route between any two Australian airports. Only Brisbane to-and-from Gladstone (500km north of Brisbane) comes close, with 10.5 per cent of its scheduled flights cancelled.
It should be said that it could be worse. Qantas isn't the only practitioner of cancel culture: if you fly between Perth and Adelaide on Virgin, 17.7 per cent of flights get bumped; or between Perth and Brisbane on Jetstar (which is owned by Qantas), one in five flights were cancelled.
On the Sydney-Canberra situation, Mr Byron believes Qantas is engaging in "anti-competitive" behaviour by booking take-off and landing slots in Sydney "which it has no intention of using".
He said that Qantas hoarded slots to keep other airlines from using them. It then cancels its own flights and delays the booked passengers until later flights.
Qantas disagreed. "Qantas completely rejects the notion that it is 'hoarding' slots at Sydney," a spokesman said.
He said the reason for the high cancellation rate for Canberra flights was that they were so frequent. If there is trouble with winds, for example, so one of Sydney's runways is taken out of service, it is less disruptive to cancel flights where there is an alternative soon after, rather than those to airports where there are few flights a day.
"The main driver of cancellations at Sydney isn't Qantas. It's chiefly weather and, to some degree, air traffic control staffing shortages. In June alone, a combination of these factors reduced the capacity at Sydney Airport on 17 out of 30 days, which caused significant delays and cancellations," the spokesman said.
But Mr Sharpe, who as transport minister in the Howard government was the architect of the current system, has called for an overhaul.
He told the Economics Committee hearing that airport slots are owned by the government and allocated to airlines, who are permitted to cancel up to 20 flights per slot without losing the entitlement.
The former minister admitted that when the so-called 80-20 rule was introduced "there was no science to that at all. The figure of 80 [flight movements per hour] is not a reflection of the capacity of the airport. It's a political thing".
Mr Sharpe claimed that Qantas was cancelling a high percentage of flights on heavily serviced routes like Canberra to Sydney and Sydney to Melbourne to cut costs while retaining slots and blocking rivals like Rex from providing more flights
"The airlines assume that they own the slots and game the 80/20 rule to hoard slots," he said.
Mr Sharpe said where Rex and Qantas flew the same route and operated the same aircraft at similar times, his airline's cancellation rate was below 3 per cent whereas for Qantas it was greater than 8 per cent.
"That is clear evidence of an airline gaming slots," he said.
At the parliamentary committee hearing, Australian Airports Association chief executive officer James Goodwin, said that the "highly concentrated" airline industry was hurting consumers.
Mr Goodwin said average airfares had increased 23 per cent between 2019 and 2022 compared with just 3 per cent internationally over the same period while the on-time performance of airlines was just 71.8 per cent.
"Airfares are high and reliability and customer service is poor," he said.
A spokeswoman for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government Minister Catherine King said Canberra travelers should "have access to reliable airline services" and flagged that the government will release a green paper on aviation "in coming weeks".
"The Albanese Government takes its responsibilities to competition in the Australian aviation sector seriously," the spokeswoman said. "[The] green paper...will address these issues in more detail as we build towards the 2024 Aviation White Paper."