Hopes that domestic aviation could rapidly recover from Victoria’s latest lockdown were dashed on Wednesday when acting Premier James Merlino announced Melburnians won’t be allowed to travel further than 25 kilometres from their home when restrictions ease.
The news, combined with continued borders closures from most other states, means the majority of flights will remain cancelled.
Victoria’s ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown was first imposed two weeks ago and was due to last seven days, however, since then the cluster has increased to 84 active cases in the local community.
The eased restrictions will come into effect from Friday, which will see Melburnians only allowed to travel within 25 kilometres of their homes unless it’s for work, education, care or getting a vaccine.
Restaurants and cafes will also only be able to open to a maximum of 50 people inside.
In regional Victoria, restaurants and cafes can open for up to 150 per venue for seated service, with up to 75 allowed indoors.
Acting Premier Merlino said he expected to be able to relax restrictions again next week so people can cross between the capital and regional areas.
On Wednesday alone, 56 flights departing and arriving into Melbourne have been formally cancelled, but the number of flights taking place is likely to be around 300 fewer per day than before the lockdown.
Today’s news is likely to cost the industry hundreds of millions more dollars lost – Qantas earlier this year revealed border closures resulting from the Northern Beaches COVID cluster at Christmas cost the airline $400 million in lost earnings.
The problems are likely to be exacerbated due to the end of JobKeeper and an increase in capacity announced by airlines in recent weeks.
Last month, Virgin announced it would hire an extra 250 staff, including pilots, ground staff and baggage handlers, in addition to the 150 new cabin crew roles unveiled in April. It also said it would launch five new services and significantly increase frequency across its network, including by 30 per cent on the ‘Golden Triangle’.
Qantas also recently said it would launch seven new routes, upgrade many of its services to larger widebody 787s and A330s, and would soon exceed 100 per cent of its pre-COVID capacity in the next few months.
The news marked an increase from Qantas’ April prediction that its domestic capacity would hit 90 per cent of pre-COVID levels in Q4 of FY21.
Meanwhile, Rex recently announced it would soon rival Virgin and Qantas to fly Melbourne–Canberra using one of its new 737s. This has subsequently been delayed owing to the lockdown.
The only state not to close its borders to Victoria was NSW. On Wednesday, Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the end of lockdown “vindicated” her decision.
“We trusted regional communities to do the right thing … and we’ve been able to be vindicated in that decision,” she said.
“It really upsets me when you hear about the personal stories of families being separated unnecessarily and businesses collapsing,” she said.
Victorians who arrived in NSW after 27 May are required to comply with lockdown restrictions they would have been expected to follow had they not left.
The lockdown will come as a huge blow to domestic aviation in Victoria and beyond. Melbourne Airport revealed domestic passenger traffic in April notched up to 65 per cent – the biggest since COVID and the same as Sydney.
Announcing the numbers, chief executive Lyell Strambi has argued Australia needs to speed up its vaccine rollout so it can open its borders – or risk being left behind other nations.
“In the short-term our splendid isolation is ultra-safe from COVID, but in the long-term it will act as a handbrake on the economy, jobs and opportunities for Australians,” he said.
“While the recovery has commenced, it remains fragile. We need to be more aggressive in relation to the vaccine rollout, in order to realise the benefits of Australia’s remarkable management of COVID-19.
“It is increasingly likely that Australia will be left behind as countries around the world reopen to one another on the back of high vaccination rates.
“Demand for international travel clearly exists and we are hopeful that once we get a high proportion of our population protected by vaccines, we can start to carefully reopen to counties with similarly high rates of vaccination and low rates of infection.”
Sir Richard Branson has also urged the Australian government to speed up its vaccine rollout.
“It should be the number-one priority of the government, nothing else matters more, to be honest,” he told Nine News.
It comes after this month’s budget papers strongly hinted international travel will not fully resume until mid-2022.