Qantas has denied breaking the law over the ghost flight scandal and accused the consumer watchdog of failing to understand the “reality” of the airline industry.

Australia’s top consumer watchdog the ACCC has filed a lawsuit in the Federal Court, alleging Qantas sold thousands of tickets on already cancelled flights, in the period from May to July last year.

But in a statement to the ASX on Monday, Qantas confirmed it had filed a legal defence and that it denies that laws were broken.

“While mistakes were made by Qantas, the ACCC’s legal case ignores the realities of the aviation industry – airlines can’t guarantee specific flight times,’’ Qantas said.

“All customers on cancelled flights were offered an alternative flight or refund; there was no ‘fee for no service’.

“As we’ve said from the start of this case, we fully acknowledge that the period examined by the ACCC was extremely difficult for our customers. Restarting flying after the Covid shutdowns proved a challenge for the whole industry.

“Qantas cancelled thousands of flights as a result and there were many unacceptable delays. While we restarted safely, we got many other things wrong and, for that, we have sincerely apologised.”

Qantas did not release the legal defence in full, instead providing a press release and instructing media outlets to apply for the document through the federal court.

But the airline said it “rejected the notion of ghost flights because people who paid for a flight were given a flight, or a refund. This was not a case of ‘fee for no service’.”

“While all airlines work hard to operate flights at their scheduled times, no airline can guarantee that. That’s because the nature of travel – when weather and operational issues mean delays and cancellations are inevitable and unavoidable – makes such a guarantee impossible,’’ it said.

“For this reason, our promise is to get customers on their way to their destination as close as possible to the flight time they book, either on their original or an alternative service at no additional cost. If not, we offer a full refund. This is consistent with our obligations under consumer law and is what we did during the period the ACCC examined.

Why did Qantas cancel thousands of flights during the period the ACCC looked at?

Qantas blamed the Covid-related supply chain shortages for the mess, admitting it meant aircraft were grounded, there were huge spikes in sick leave and self-quarantine requirements Some international borders were also still in flux.

“To help stabilise our operations, we made the decision to make large cuts to our planned flying,’’ Qantas said.

“That meant cancelling a lot of flights that were already in the system, which we did on average Two-and-a-half months before scheduled departure so that we could better manage the impact on customers by finding alternatives.

“As an example of the scale involved, Qantas had to process more than 415,000 itinerary changes in the months of February and March 2022 alone.”

Why was there a delay in telling customers their flight was cancelled?

Qantas claims in the defence that the longer delays in telling passengers the flights were cancelled involved finding alternative options for customers.

“In most cases, the delays between us making the decision to cancel a flight and notifying customers allowed Qantas time to find them an alternative,’’ the airline said.

“This was happening months ahead of when they were due to travel and our priority is always to find alternatives within hours or a day of their original departure time, focusing on those closest to their travel date first.

“For the cancellations in question, where the flights were to depart well into the future, we believe this would have resulted in a significantly more frustrating customer experience. I

“Instead, we waited to be able to tell customers ‘your flight has changed’ rather than ‘your flight has been cancelled’.”

What’s changed to stop this happening again?

Cancelled flights are now taken off sale immediately, well inside the 48 hours that the ACCC case flags.

“This is a manual process and would not have been possible during the period the ACCC examined given the level of upheaval at that time. Qantas is currently developing a tailored IT solution that would link to our third-party system and automate this process.’’ it said.

Qantas insists that 100 per cent of impacted domestic passengers were offered same-day flights departing prior to or within one hour after their scheduled departure time.

“In most cases, customers were rebooked on these alternative flights weeks or months ahead of when they were actually due to travel, allowing them to plan,’’ Qantas said.

“The ACCC’s case relates to cancelled flights that were left on sale for longer than 48 hours. We acknowledge there were delays and we sincerely regret that this occurred, but crucially, it does not equate to Qantas obtaining a ‘fee for no service’ because customers were accommodated on other flights as close as possible to their original time or offered a full refund.

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