Qatar adds daily Canberra and doubles Sydney capacity: Everyone’s a winner (almost)

On 22-Jul-2017 Qatar Airways updated the GDS and inventory timetable display to show a new daily Doha-Sydney-Canberra service effective from 12-Feb-2018. The airline will operate the route with Boeing 777 equipment, massively increasing its capacity to Sydney.

It’s a great win for Canberra, even if it does mean linking via Sydney; but the convenience of transiting Sydney (in both directions) through the international terminal means greatly added convenience for Canberra travellers.

Qatar has been hinting at plans to launch services to Canberra for quite some time; however, it was unclear how this would pan out. Direct services seemed extremely unlikely due to the relatively small market in Canberra and the location of the one stop offering was never communicated. There were even rumours about a possible tag through Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur.

What is important here is that the new service will increase Doha-Sydney frequency to twice daily, despite restrictions which limit the carrier to operate a total of seven frequencies per week with any aircraft type between Qatar and Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth.

For markets where Australia does not have open skies agreements, Australia limits the number of flights to the four biggest capital cities. But for all other gateways, the government permits open access on a unilateral basis and exceptions to the major city rule are typically made for additional flights that to go to that city where they route via, or go to, a non-major Australian city. The purpose of this liberal approach (liberal at least in the archaic regulatory regime that applies to international airlines) is to stimulate air service to smaller cities.

Qatar is making use of this incentive to increase Sydney capacity.

Doha-Sydney route capacity 25-Jul-2016 to 14-Jan-2018. In Feb-2018 it will nearly double.

Source: CAPA – Centre for Aviation and OAG

The traffic rights available for Australian airlines to Qatar (broadly the same as what Qatar has to Australia) are set out in the Australia-Qatar bilateral agreement that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop signed in Doha in late 2016:

“21 frequencies in each direction per week with any aircraft type. In addition, a total of seven frequencies per week with any aircraft type between Qatar and Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth provided such services operate via or beyond to a point in Australia other than Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth.” 

Therefore, a one-stop service to Canberra via Sydney is within the restrictions, as Canberra is classified as a non-major Australian city. Unfortunately, the policy of stimulating regional international services and tourism through this strategy hasn’t generally worked very well as smaller airports are generally not big enough to support widebody long haul. Allowing this added benefit sometimes just tilts the balance, as it has for Canberra.

So, while Qatar’s main interest may be to add capacity to the Sydney route, the beneficiary is the Canberra market. The daily flight will arrive in Canberra at 8:25 AM and leave at 1:45PM.

Qatar will not be allowed to sell tickets for the Sydney-Canberra sector alone though. That is cabotage, the right to transport of goods or passengers between two destinations in the same country by an operator from another country, and is very rarely granted. A recommendation by the Productivity Commission to allow forms of cabotage in the interests of adding services on some smaller routes was strenuously opposed by the incumbent airlines and unions and the idea was dropped. But through passengers are able to make a stop in Sydney in each direction and get back onto Qatar Airways for the shorter sector if they want. That’s not cabotage, but carriage of Qatar’s “own” stopover passengers.

Cabotage wouldn’t really help much with making the Sydney-Canberra sector profitable for Qatar anyway due to its inconvenient schedule, the inconvenience of early international check-in, as well as increased security and passport control holding up domestic travellers.

The key is that Qatar has found an opportunity to maximise capacity on the Sydney market, without impacting its other key locations throughout Australia.

Do Qantas and Virgin Australia like it? Probably not much, as it adds competition to a fierce Sydney market. Qatar is a member of Qantas’ alliance, oneworld, so there is the opportunity to codeshare, but Qantas will undoubtedly give preference to its close partner and Qatar rival, Emirates. Likewise, Virgin, which is aligned with (and partly owned by) the third Gulf megacarrier, Etihad.

The new flight marks a remarkable expansion of the role of Canberra Airport since it was privatised in 1998. In Sep-2016 Canberra also attracted Singapore Airlines to operate four times weekly widebody service linking Singapore-Canberra-Wellington, the “Capital Express”.