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Exclusive: Flight numbers set to pass pre-Omicron peak

written by Adam Thorn | March 17, 2022

New data from Sydney and Melbourne airports show Australian aviation is just days away from surpassing the flying levels seen before the Omicron downturn.

In the NSW capital, the number of aircraft arriving and departing hit 651 on 16 March, down from a post-lockdown peak of 661 on Christmas Eve last year. The numbers at Tullamarine are similarly just 33 below its own peak.

The numbers, based on a seven-day rolling average, are likely to increase substantially soon with this week’s announcement that New Zealand will relax its international border restrictions.

The country will allow fully vaccinated Australians to enter from 11.59pm on 12 April, and visitors will not need to isolate. Within hours of the announcement from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Qantas and Jetstar said they would boost daily return flights across the Tasmin.

The flag carrier and its subsidiary will operate 30 return flights per week on five routes, a major boost from the two previously running.

Qantas will fly daily from Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney to Auckland and Sydney to Christchurch on its Boeing 737 aircraft and Airbus A330 aircraft.

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Jetstar, meanwhile, will operate three weekly flights from the Gold Coast to Auckland on its Airbus A320 jets.

The improved data from Melbourne and Sydney will also raise more questions as to why the federal government extended its controversial slot waivers – criticized as being anti-competitive by the ACCC – by a further six months.

Earlier this week, Australian Aviation revealed airlines will only need to fly 70 per cent of their allocated take-off times in order to prevent rivals from taking over the service.

The new rules, which have been condemned by new entrants Bonza and Rex, will run from 27 March until 29 October this year domestically.

Australia’s slot system attempted to shield airlines from having to unexpectedly cancel flights and increase competition domestically, ensuring no one operator holds a monopoly.

A slot is a literal time slot that allows an airline to take off at a specific airport at a particular time. Pre-COVID, if an airline held a slot, it could keep it to itself, but only if the business used it for 80 per cent of the time.

Those rules were hugely relaxed during COVID as lockdowns and border closures caused hundreds of cancellations but have now been criticised by both Rex and Bonza as stifling their ability to run services at the most popular times.

The problem is thought to be most endemic at Sydney Airport, which is at near capacity and has an effective monopoly.

This month, an ACCC report said, “At capacity-constrained Sydney Airport, new and expanding airlines can find it very difficult to obtain slots at peak periods, which in turn acts as a barrier to competition. As discussed above, new airline Bonza said that the lack of access to slots was one of the reasons why Sydney was not included in its initial route network.

Click to enlarge (FlightAware)

“Rex is also looking for permanent access to peak period slots to support its expansion into intercity jet services.

“Waivers from slot usage requirements have enabled international airlines to retain their slots despite minimal or no flying, which will facilitate their return as demand for international travel grows.

“However, the waivers may also have delayed domestic airlines getting permanent access to slots held by certain international airlines that will ultimately decide not to recommence services in and out of Australia.

“The ACCC is engaging with government on reforms to the demand management scheme at Sydney Airport. In particular, we consider that historic precedence to slot allocations should not be used to protect incumbent airlines from competition.”

It concluded the rules could potentially act as a “key barrier to entry and expansion for airlines”.

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