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Flight cancellations fell rapidly after Omicron peak

written by Hannah Dowling | April 26, 2022

Image by Seth Jaworski.

The number of flights cancelled by airlines fell dramatically in February and March, after the Omicron outbreak saw its peak in late January.

According to new data released by the Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics (BITRE), just 2.5 per cent of the 37,000 flights scheduled to take off in March were cancelled, improving on February’s cancellation rate of 3.6 per cent.

This marks a drastic improvement on the figures from January, when a whopping 12 per cent of all scheduled flights were ultimately cancelled, marking over 4,000 cancellations throughout the month as the east coast’s Omicron wave hit its peak.

In March, Qantas reported the highest number of cancellations, with 3.4 per cent of its 16,800 QF-designated flights reported as cancelled, the BITRE date revealed.

Meanwhile, rival Virgin boasted the lowest cancellation rate for the month, beating out Jetstar and Rex, with 1.4 per cent of its 9,300 flights axed.

Despite the seemingly strong result for airlines in March, figures for April, once released, are expected to again highlight a spike in cancelled flights, brought about by the Easter and ANZAC Day long weekends, which saw travellers flock to airports and COVID isolation rules wreak havoc on staff and passengers alike.

Earlier this month, Australian Aviation reported that dozens of flights had been cancelled from Sydney Airport within one day, with many more delayed, as staff shortages continued to severely impact the industry, at the same time as the country’s largest airport saw its busiest day since the beginning of the pandemic.

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On Monday, 11 April, 784 flights were scheduled to arrive and depart from Sydney airport, the highest day for aircraft traffic the airport has seen since flights began to stall in March 2020.

It marked a nearly 30 per cent increase on traffic seen in April 2021 – amid a brief period of relief for the industry before Omicron took hold – and a massive 393 per cent jump from the same day in 2020.

At this time, the airport entered its fifth day of chaos, as passengers continued to report that check-in and security lines, across both domestic and international terminals, were adding hours to their travel itineraries.

Both Sydney Airport and Qantas earlier blamed the extensive wait times, in part, on travellers themselves, however, many passengers said that there was a visible staffing issue that saw security lanes and check-in desks closed and non-operational.

As reports first emerged of holiday-induced chaos in Sydney on Friday, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce blamed delays on “not match fit” travellers.

“I went through the airports on Wednesday and people forget they need to take out their laptops, they have to take out their aerosols … so that is taking longer to get through the [security] queue,” he said.

He added COVID close-contact rules were causing “high level of absenteeism” of up to 18 per cent, however, NSW Health later eased close contact rules for aviation workers, allowing them to return to work with a mask if they show no symptoms and test negative to COVID, even if someone in their household has tested positive.

Frustrated passengers were unimpressed with Joyce’s comments, arguing that the airline should have been more prepared for an influx of people flying.

It follows similar comments made by Sydney Airport chief executive Geoff Culbert, who blamed a “perfect storm” of COVID isolation, holiday demand and rusty travellers for the increasing wait times.

“We would like to apologise to passengers who are being inconvenienced and would like to thank people who are getting to the airport early, wearing their masks and making sure they are prepared for their check-in and security processes,” said Culbert.

“Traffic numbers are picking up, travellers are inexperienced after two years of not travelling, and the close contact rules are making it hard to fill shifts and staff the airport.

“We encourage everyone to get to the airport early and we ask everyone to be patient as the industry gets back on its feet.”

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