Australia’s consumer commission said in legal proceedings that Qantas, the country’s national carrier, had sold tickets for routes it never intended to fly.
Qantas Airways, Australia’s national airline, sold thousands of tickets for flights that it had already canceled, the country’s consumer watchdog said in a lawsuit against the carrier, and left travelers scrambling to make alternative arrangements.
In a statement, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission said Thursday that it had started legal proceedings in Australian federal court against Qantas, saying that the airline had engaged in false, misleading or deceptive conduct by advertising tickets for more than 8,000 flights scheduled from May 2022 to July 2022 that it knew it would never fly.
The airline said it took the allegations “seriously” and would respond to them in full in court. But, in a statement, it noted that the flights had occurred at a time of “upheaval” for the industry, during a “challenging” post-pandemic return to normalcy.
In its filing, the watchdog group said that tickets remained available for an average of more than two weeks and sometimes as long as 47 days after the flights had been canceled.
The flight cancellations were typically related not to weather or staffing shortages but to circumstances that were within the airline’s control, including changes in “consumer demand, route withdrawals or retention of takeoff and landing slots at certain airports,” Gina Cass-Gottlieb, the A.C.C.C. chair, said in a statement. The commission did not state why Qantas would have sold tickets for canceled flights.
The news came as anger swirls in Australia at revelations that the government blocked Qatar Airways from adding flights to Australia to protect Qantas’s interests, in turn keeping fares at double the cost of those of before the pandemic.
The proposal, which would have added one million additional seats a year and most likely have reduced prices, was blocked by Catherine King, the transportation minister, who said that it was not in Australia’s national interests, including the “need to ensure that there are long-term, well-paid, secure jobs by Australians in the aviation sector.”
The airline faces a separate class-action lawsuit over its policy on flights canceled because of the pandemic, in which the airline issued travel credits that would expire rather than give refunds to customers.
“By acting in this way,” the suit alleges, “Qantas has enjoyed significant financial benefits at its customers’ expense.”
In a statement, Qantas said that the period referred to by the watchdog “was a time of unprecedented upheaval for the entire airline industry.” The company last month posted a record profit of around 2.5 billion Australian dollars, or $1.6 billion, for the fiscal year ending June 30. During the pandemic, it received 2.7 billion Australian dollars in support from taxpayers, which it has said it will not pay back.
Speaking to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the country’s public broadcaster, on Friday, Ms. Cass-Gottlieb said that the commission would be seeking “a record penalty” of at least 250 million Australian dollars from the airline to send a warning to companies about consumer-related misconduct.
“This is going to be an important test for us. We consider these penalties have been too low,” she said, adding: “We are going to seek a penalty that will underline that this is not just to be a cost of doing business — it is to deter conduct of this nature.”
The previous highest penalty, 125 million Australian dollars, was issued to Volkswagen in 2020 after the carmaker was found to have misled consumers and regulators about its compliance with Australian diesel emissions standards.