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Airlines forced to cancel thousands of flights in July as outbreak spread

written by Hannah Dowling | August 24, 2021
Qantas 737s parked at Sydney Airport, as shot by Victor Pody
Qantas 737s parked at Sydney Airport, as shot by Victor Pody

Australian airlines were again forced to cancel thousands of flights throughout July as Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs COVID outbreak began to cross domestic borders.

According to the Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics (BITRE) On-Time Performance report, a total of 31.8 per cent of all scheduled flights were cancelled in July, with 9,351 flights cancelled.

It nears the 9,406 flights that were cancelled in June, almost 25 per cent of all scheduled flights for the month, following the beginning of the Delta outbreak in Sydney mid-June. June was noted by BITRE as seeing the highest number of flights cancelled in one month since reporting began in 2003.

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While most states had already slammed their borders shut to NSW travellers in June, the sustained high levels of cancellations came as over 12 million Australians were plunged into lockdown, as the virus spread between states.

By mid-July, South Australia, Queensland and Victoria had all introduced snap ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown orders.

Compared with July 2020, when the country began to exit its first nationwide lockdown, just 4.4 per cent of flights were cancelled, according to BITRE.

Of the airlines, Jetstar was forced to axe the most flights, with 51.2 per cent of all scheduled flights in July cancelled, followed by Qantas with 35.8 per cent of all flights, Virgin at 31.2 per cent, and Rex at 17.8 per cent.

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The ‘Golden Triangle’ between Melbourne-Sydney-Brisbane was most hard-hit, with 79.1 per cent of all Sydney-Melbourne flights being scrapped, as well as 76.5 per cent of all Brisbane-Sydney flights.

Sydney Airport said last week despite seeing a strong rebound to 65 per cent of pre-COVID capacity earlier this year, border closures and lockdowns around the country saw traffic plummet to just 3 per cent of 2019 levels in July.

The news comes as domestic business class fares fell over 50 per cent in the last 12 months to a new record low.

According to BITRE data, its monthly airfare index hit 46.8 this month, falling 51.4 per cent since August 2020, and reaching its lowest figure on record.

The series is a price index of the lowest available fare in each fare class, weighted over selected routes. It does not measure real airline yields, or average fares paid by passengers.

The index has been compiled using flight booking data since 1992, with data from June 2003 representing the base index value of 100.0.

Business fares appeared to enter a freefall in late June 2021, decreasing 25.3 per cent in the space of one month, from 64.4 in June to 48.1 in July. Meanwhile, economy fares have held consistently stable since May.

The drop coincided with the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, which began in Sydney’s Eastern suburbs, and has since seen half of the Australian population thrown into lockdowns, and most of the country’s domestic borders slammed shut.

In July, Virgin Australia slashed business class fares for bookings made at least four weeks in advance, with one-way tickets on offer for as little as $199 on routes such as Brisbane to Rockhampton or Melbourne to Launceston.

Virgin, which now competes with both Qantas and Rex on popular business routes between major cities, released the sale to drum up demand for future business travel during the prolonged travel lull, which was sparked by national closed borders and saw thousands of flights cancelled.

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