A Qantas plane can be seen taking off as another taxis along the runway.

Canceled flights and delays hit record highs as airlines struggle to make a comeback from COVID

Australia has confirmed its worst flight cancellation and service rate on record.

Figures compiled by the federal government’s Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics showed that just 63 percent of Qantas, Virgin, Jetstar and Rex Airlines flights arrived on time in June, while just 61.9 percent departed on schedule.

It said 5.8 percent of flights had been cancelled, meaning June this year had the worst on-time performance figures since data collection began in November 2003.

The cancellation rate was more than twice the long-term average of 2.1 percent.

Qantas fared the worst with 8.1 percent of canceled flights.

It was followed by QantasLink with 7 percent, Virgin Australia with 5.8 percent, Jetstar with 5.5 percent and Virgin Australia Regional Airlines with 5.3 percent.

Rex Airlines appeared to be the most reliable last month with just 0.7 per cent of flights cancelled.

The bureau said the weather and issues related to COVID-19 contributed to the poor performance.

Qantas said a surge in cases of COVID and other illnesses among flight crew, along with the tight labor market, caused flight disruptions for all domestic carriers in June.

Overall, airlines are struggling to regain pre-pandemic levels of service.(ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

Qantas said Sydney Airport was reduced to a single runway for five days, including June 1, the worst day of the month for on-time performance and cancellations, due to strong winds.

There were also staff shortages across the aviation industry, including air traffic control, reducing landing and takeoff rates seven days a month at airports across the country.

The airline said it has placed additional crew members on standby to lessen the impact of COVID-related crew absences and said cancellations so far this month are down from June’s.

“Everyone at Qantas and Jetstar is focused on reversing that achievement,” the spokesman said.

“We are already seeing improvements and things will get better month by month.

“Call center wait times are better now than they were before COVID, and our mishandled bag rates are nearly as high as they were before the pandemic.”

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Virgin Australia reiterated the reasons for the poor performance, saying flights had been significantly impacted by weather events in New South Wales, as well as resource pressures related to COVID and the large number of passengers returning to travel.

“While this result is not what we aim to achieve, this result is the result of the extraordinary efforts of our team, who continue to work around the clock to help our guests get to their destination during busy times,” said a spokesman .

Virgin said it recently made operational changes that have already reduced the number of flights it has to cancel this month.

The cancellation rate is trending in the right direction and has fallen to 2.4 percent this week.

Sydney and Melbourne passengers have been hit the hardest

Cancellations across all airlines were highest on Sydney to Melbourne flights at 15.3 per cent, followed by the Melbourne to Sydney route at 14.9 per cent.

Flights between Sydney and Canberra and then the Canberra to Melbourne route were among the next highest to be cancelled.

Melbourne Airport Chief Aviation Officer Jim Parashos said airlines have been working hard to rebuild their workforce after being completely shut down during the 2020 and 2021 lockdowns.

He said flu season and the Omicron surge have hit operations hard, as federal regulations on minimum crew requirements routinely ground an entire service.

“In some cases, only one cabin crew member may be ill, which then results in a flight being cancelled,” Mr Parashos said.

Wearing a navy suit and blue shirt, Jim is smiling as he stands in an airport terminal
Jim Parashos, chief of aviation at Melbourne Airport, says regulations are adding to the difficulties caused by staff shortages and illness.(Delivered: Melbourne Airport)

Delays hit airports across the country

On the flights that took place in June, punctuality was a consistent problem.

At 63 percent, punctuality in June was well below the long-term average of 82.1 percent.

Similarly, the bureau said the departure figure of 61.9 percent was also well below the long-term average of 83.3 percent.

Rex Airlines was the most punctual with 80 percent punctuality, followed by Virgin Australia with 62.4 percent.

Jetstar just ousted its parent company Qantas with a result of 59.5 percent ahead of the latter’s 59.1 percent.

Virgin had the most on-time departures with 60.4 percent of flights departing on schedule.

Alice Springs performed best on arrivals at 87.2 percent and Armidale Airport had the most on-time flights at 81.5 percent.

Mildura had the last arrivals with only 47.2 percent of the planes landing on time.

Australian Airports Association chief executive James Goodwin said the airline industry still has work to do to improve reliability.

“What we want to do is rebuild the confidence of the traveling public that they can get where they want to go, they can do it with joy, they can do it with confidence,” he said.

“We want to get back to a normal time but at the moment with the patchy recovery anything that will shake confidence is a challenge for everyone.”

Stranded passengers lose confidence in airlines

Rachel Power has said she no longer has confidence in Australian airlines after she and a plane full of passengers were recently stranded overnight in a closed Cairns airport terminal.

After she and her family spent the winter school holidays enjoying the warmer air in the tropics, their flight home to Melbourne was delayed an hour and then had to return to Cairns due to a medical emergency.

She said after sitting on the tarmac late into the night, passengers were removed from the plane with no explanation as to why service could not resume.

Ms Power said the airline had told them there was no vacant hotel room in Cairns to accommodate them and the family would have to spend the night in the airport’s arrivals terminal.

Her flight didn’t leave until the afternoon of the following day.

Passengers sleep on baggage belts in an airport terminal.
Rachel Power says she no longer has confidence in Australian airlines after a plane full of Jetstar passengers was stranded at Cairns airport overnight.(Included: Rachel Power)

She said the experience made her “extremely reluctant” to book another holiday.

“I felt incredibly sorry for the staff, I think the staff really are bearing the brunt of everyone’s anger and frustration,” Ms Power said.

“I just don’t have much faith in Australia’s big airlines anymore.”

“You cannot book a holiday at a time like this if you are flying without being prepared for it to be canceled or delayed.”

Delays could last for months

Since Easter, Qantas and Jetstar have hired more than 1,000 responders and groundhandling providers have increased their workforce by 15 per cent.

Mr Parashos said while hospitality could train a new employee in a week, pilots, cabin crew and baggage handlers need more rigorous training to meet regulated standards.

“They work in highly sensitive areas, their work is often very technical and of course they also need security clearances, so it can sometimes take two or three months for such people to come on board,” he said.

A view of the deserted Melbourne Airport.
Activity at airports across Australia has fluctuated with the COVID lockdowns in recent years.(ABC News: Richard Willingham)

Mr Paroshos said increasing skilled migration would help but it would still take time for the industry to return to pre-pandemic levels.

“We’re going to see improvements over the coming months, and part of that is airlines making their networks and planning a little more resilient to accommodate last-minute demands.”

He said Australia is not alone, facing the same challenges around the world.

Meanwhile, Mr Goodwin is urging the federal government to include the aviation sector in discussions at an upcoming skills summit.

He said the 24-hour nature of the work has made it more difficult to get staff back for airports “where you work shifts, where you might have trouble getting childcare centers to say 4 or 5 a.m. to come on open “opening in the morning or late will obviously be a problem”.

He said people in some parts of the sector were not eligible for JobKeeper payments during the lockdown and have therefore found other jobs.

“We are now suffering the consequences of these decisions but we must move on,” Mr Goodwin said.

He said speeding up the background and security checks required for airport jobs could help solve the labor shortage.

“We urge the government to streamline some of these processes to ensure anyone looking to return to or work in aviation is prioritized.”

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