Australians overseas hoping to come home before Christmas are set to be disappointed as airlines slash flight schedules and cancel flights, with no new seats available.
According to a report by The Sydney Morning Herald, industry players are warning that there are no more available seats on commercial flights into Australia before Christmas, as airlines navigate significantly reduced arrival caps.
It comes after repeated calls for the government to provide the aviation industry with guidance on rules and regulations around international travel, due to restart in the coming months, particularly in relation to arrival caps, quarantine requirements, and health screening.
The few airlines that have continued commercial services to Australia, including Singapore Airlines, have been forced to cancel flights and slash capacity due to the reduction in arrival caps, as Australia bunkered down to battle its COVID-19 outbreak in NSW and Victoria.
According to travel agents, this has caused Singapore Airlines to convert passenger services into freight-only flights, and the airline is no longer taking bookings for flights into Australia until March 2022 due to the restrictive passenger caps.
“This is the worst that it has ever, ever been,” said Perth-based travel agent Jennie Bardsley, stating that passenger arrival caps are now so restricted that it is now harder than ever to get home.
Bardsley said that she had to stop taking new bookings for Australians trying to come home this month, and her waiting list has now blown out to “hundreds and hundreds”.
“No travel agent’s taking any new bookings,” she said, adding that it’s now impossible to book an Australian on a commercial flight home before Christmas.
“I can’t – it’s heartbreaking.”
Bardsley explained that even though airlines and booking sites might suggest there are tickets available, most of these will end up becoming “ghost flights”, and passengers will likely be disappointed by last-minute flight cancellations.
“Airlines are just cancelling the whole aircraft; they’ve just canned everything whether you are flying to Sydney, Melbourne or Perth because there’s just no certainty from the Australian government,” she said.
“If your Mum’s dying, your Dad’s dying in Australia, your sister’s got cancer, if you’ve done the right thing and stayed because the government said ‘don’t come back’ – some of these people being bumped now [had] booked flights for October in January.”
Meanwhile, Barry Abrahams, executive director of the Board of Airlines Representatives Australia, said the arrivals caps are “totally annihilating” the financial viability of commercial flights, and that airlines are now flying into Sydney with 6,000 empty seats.
“When you’re down to only being able to bring in 10 passengers, you’re better off converting that flight to freight-only,” he said.
“All the networks are sitting on backlogs – there are no tickets available to come home.”
This has led more people to solely rely on government-provided repatriation flights, with over 44,000 Australians now registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as wanting to return home.
The news complicates current estimates that Australia’s international borders will open before Christmas.
Tourism Minister Dan Tehan confirmed this week that Australians will be free to travel internationally by Christmas “at the latest”, in keeping with the government’s national re-opening plan.
The tourism minister confirmed that the federal government had no plans to stray from its current national re-opening plan, which allows for the opening of international borders once the national adult population reaches 80 per cent vaccination.
It comes after the federal government revealed a new plan to drop its ban on Australian citizens and residents leaving the country as early as November.
“I do empathise with the Australians who have been denied the opportunity to travel overseas this year,” Minister Tehan said.
However, airlines and airports have repeatedly warned that the government is still leaving them in the dark about requirements for post-pandemic travel, which threatens the speedy re-start of overseas flights.
Speaking with Australian Aviation last week, Australian Airports Association chief executive James Goodwin called on the government to clarify its planned procedures and requirements around post-pandemic travel “as soon as possible”, so the aviation industry can adequately prepare.
“At the moment, we still don’t know what procedures will be for passengers coming in from overseas, and what is needed of airports, airlines, staff and government agencies to facilitate that,” Goodwin said.
“There are long lead times in aviation, so six or 12 months is not actually a long time in our world. So a lot of this planning could have and should have been done a long time ago.”
Just yesterday, Rex deputy chairman John Sharp also joined in calls for the government to provide clear and uniform directions for post-pandemic travel requirements, to give the industry enough time to prepare.
According to Sharp, Rex is “waiting for government direction” on key parameters for the return of domestic travel, which the airline anticipates could be fully operational by November.
This includes whether or not passengers will need to be fully vaccinated, or provide proof of negative COVID-19 tests before boarding a domestic or regional flight
“We are waiting for the government to tell us what the rules are so that we can then implement them, but without the rules we don’t know what to do,” Sharp told Australia Today on Thursday.
Sharp said that airlines can’t just implement new policies overnight, so the government needs to be providing certainty now.
“For example, we might require our booking system to be altered, if [air travel] now requires proof of double vaccination,” he said.
“That would require a change to our website, and to our booking system, which you just can’t do overnight, it’s not a simple thing.”