Qantas ‘failure’ over ghost flight claims

The ACCC claims Qantas sold tickets to cancelled flights. NCA NewsWire / Gaye Gerard

Australia’s consumer watchdog has accused Qantas of failing to address accusations it sold thousands of tickets for cancelled flights as the hotly anticipated legal battle began in the Federal Court.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission launched legal action against the airline in August, claiming it sold tickets for 8000 “ghost flights” between May and July 2022.

Qantas is also accused of taking an average of 18 days to notify ticket holders for 10,000 flights that their journeys had been cancelled.

In some cases, the ACCC alleges Qantas took up to 48 days to notify affected passengers.

On Wednesday, the ACCC’s barrister Christopher Caleo KC said the commission took issue with “a failure on the part of Qantas to respond directly to the key allegations of conduct.”

The ACCC alleges Qantas sold tickets to thousands of cancelled flights. NCA NewsWire / Gaye Gerard

He said the airline may need to be compelled by the court to hand over more information if initial requests for particulars didn’t address the issue.

Qantas’ barrister Robert Yezerski SC refuted the claim, arguing the airline’s response was “relatively clear”.

Justice Helen Rofe directed Qantas to hand over a response to the watchdog’s request for more details by December 1.

The court heard the parties will endeavour to agree on the facts of the case before holding a hearing on the question of Qantas’ liability next year.

Justice Rofe ordered a separate hearing to be held to determine the relief sought by the ACCC.

However, Mr Caleo and Mr Yezerski said any mention of setting a trial date was “premature”.

Both parties can enter a settlement at any point if they agree.

The ACCC is seeking orders in the Federal Court for the alleged deceptive misconduct, including penalties, injunctions, declarations and costs.

The ACCC claims the airline took an average of 18 days to notify ticketholders that flights had been cancelled. Picture: NCA NewsWire / David Geraghty
The ACCC claims the airline took an average of 18 days to notify ticketholders that flights had been cancelled. Picture: NCA NewsWire / David Geraghty

It alleges Qantas continued to sell tickets for 8000 cancelled flights scheduled to depart between May and July last year for an average of two weeks after they were cancelled.

The watchdog claims some of the “ghost flights” were advertised up to 47 days after the flight had been discontinued.

ACCC chair Gina Cass-Gottlieb said in September she thought Qantas should face a fine of hundreds of millions of dollars if the allegations were proven.

The airline has denied breaking consumer laws and argued the ACCC has failed to understand “the realities of the aviation industry”.

In a media statement last month, Australia’s largest airline acknowledged it failed to meet customers’ standards during the “extremely difficult” three-month period and accepted “mistakes were made”.

However, it said the reality of the aviation industry made it impossible for airlines to guarantee specific flight times.

Qantas maintained it complied with consumer law by offering alternative flights or refunds to customers affected by the cancellations.

ACCC chair Gina Cass-Gottlieb said Qantas should face a record fine of hundreds of millions of dollars if the watchdog is successful. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Christian Gilles

In the court documents, the airline contended customers don’t purchase passage on a particular flight but rather “a bundle of rights” that includes alternative options in the event of cancellation.

Qantas noted airline schedules were “not static” and “inherently subject to change” due to a range of factors, including aircraft availability, staffing, and weather.

The legal battle comes amid a tumultuous time for the airline, which is embroiled in controversies regarding the illegal sacking of 1700 workers, the handling of Covid travel credits, and the cost of flights.

In August, the ACCC noted it continued to receive more complaints about Qantas than any other company in the country.