Airlines warn NSW may reopen to international travel but with few planes to service huge demand

By Elias Visontay
Aircraft grounded due to the Covid pandemic parked at the Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage facility in Alice Springs
Aircraft parked in Alice Springs during the pandemic. Airlines say any restart of travel will be gradual as they re-establish their operations in Australia. Photograph: Darren England/AAP

Foreign airlines won’t be able to ramp up operations to meet the mass reopening of international travel into Sydney when 80% vaccination is reached because they will need several months to recall laid off staff and retrieve planes that have been parked in deserts.

Barry Abrams, the executive director of the Board of Airline Representatives of Australia, told Guardian Australia that airlines continued to be left in the dark about what the new rules and passenger limits would be, leaving them stuck “in a holding pattern” unable to commence planning for resuming routes.

Passenger allowances were a key factor for airlines in determining the financial viability of their routes, and Abrams warned that carriers that had not flown to the country in more than a year had not yet begun allocating aircraft or staff to Australian routes, nor had they begun renegotiating contracts with ground handling crews and local supply businesses.

His warning comes as Singapore Airlines confirmed it would be further cutting the number of flights flying into Australia, blaming a lack of certainty over plans to lift passenger caps for the move which will see dozens of flights cancelled before the Christmas period.

“We have no clarity on the removal of international arrival caps, throughout that October to December period, so we’ve had to make the very difficult decision that we simply can’t operate the two additional flights that we were hoping to do into Sydney,” Karl Schubert, a spokesperson for the airline, told ABC radio on Wednesday.

Airlines are currently flying planes with about 6,000 empty seats a day into Sydney airport and were only able to carry 110 passengers. Abrams warned the logistical hurdles international airlines must plan for to introduce new services meant passenger intake won’t dramatically increase for several months.

“Without any clear plan here, there is simply no logical reason for an international airline to begin considering increasing its flights into Australia,” Abrams said.

Passenger caps were halved nationally in July and resulted in some commercial flights being given a zero passenger allocation and forced to rely on cargo to subsidise the operation cost.

At the end of August, the New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, announced the state would further halve its international arrivals intake to about 750 people a week so health workers within the hotel quarantine system could be redeployed to the state’s under-pressure hospital system.

In the same announcement, Berejiklian vowed NSW would scale up its quarantine intake again once the state reached its 80% double-dose vaccination target, and revealed an ambition for NSW to repatriate a larger share of Australians, including those from other states, in time to spend Christmas at home.

Last week, Berejiklian said “we will definitely be opening up Sydney airport to welcome home Australians” once 80% is achieved, and indicated that home quarantine for fully vaccinated arrivals could be introduced in some form once the 70% double dose target is reached – predicted for the middle of October.

This week, the Morrison government took a major step towards establishing a vaccine passport for international travel, awarding a contract to international IT company Accenture for new digital passenger declarations, after suggesting it would have a system in place within weeks.

However, Abrams – whose group Bara represents airlines including Qatar Airways, Etihad, Emirates, United Airlines and Singapore Airlines – was not confident airlines could resume operations as quickly as governments were hoping.

Abrams said that theoretically, even the skeleton passenger operations still flying into Sydney added up to more than 35,000 seats a week, which could repatriate the roughly 40,000 Australians still stranded overseas relatively quickly.

However, he said health and security staff employed at airports, as well as airline crews, were not currently staffed anywhere near the levels required to process these passengers.

“Currently flights take on average about 10 or so passengers ... If the government tomorrow said they could take 100 passengers per flight, while there would be the demand, there is no way they could possibly process that number of passengers,” Abrams said.

However, Abrams said airlines were desperate for information from the state and federal government about what their passenger limits would be so they could begin recalling planes that were parked in desert facilities, rehiring crews and renegotiating ground handling and other supply contracts.

“At this point from our perspective there’s been no information about new passenger caps, requirements for flights or airport operations to allow any airline to commence planning for its future into Australia.

“We pretty much sit in a holding pattern at the moment,” Abrams said, adding that “the very limited level of engagement from government” had frustrated member airlines.

Abrams believed the logistical hurdles that airlines must overcome to restart certain routes meant the availability of international flight tickets in and out of Sydney once NSW reopened would largely be split across two phases.

It would take about a month from being notified of the new flight rules for airlines to be ready to fly the first phase of new air routes into Sydney.

However, only the few airlines that were currently operating flights with strict limits into the country – about 10 – would be ready within a month, Abrams expected, because they already had staff on the ground in the country.

He believed this first phase capacity would meet Australia’s current reduced demand for travel that wasn’t being supplied, but could not match pre-pandemic travel patterns foreshadowed by Berejiklian for her state’s reopening later this year.

The second phase of ramping up international travel to Australia would be more substantial and could involve all airlines that previously flew to the country resuming their pre-pandemic landing slots.

“Those airlines that have suspended flights into Australia, their startup time could be much longer (than a month) because they have to re-establish check-in crews, as well as contracts with ground handlers, re-employ people, restaff offices.

“At the moment there’s a large number of international aircraft parked in deserts still, there is the practical issue of getting aircraft and aircrew recertified to operate. Any restart of travel will be gradual ... but nobody is even starting anything until we have clarity from the government.”

Abrams’ comments echo a similar sentiment given as evidence by the Australian Aviation Ground Handling Industry Alliance to a Senate committee last week, which warned aviation employees had left the industry because they were excluded from government support packages and that labour shortages would plague the industry in coming months.


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