Canceled flights, delays reach record levels as airlines struggle to make comeback from COVID

Australia has confirmed its worst flight cancellation and performance rate since records began.

Figures compiled by the federal government’s Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics revealed only 63 per cent of Qantas, Virgin, Jetstar and Rex Airlines flights arrived on time in June while just 61.9 per cent departed when scheduled.

It said 5.8 per cent of flights were canceled, meaning June of this year had the worst on time performance figures since the data started being recorded in November 2003.

The cancellation rate was more than double the long-term average figure of 2.1 per cent.

Qantas fared the worst with 8.1 per cent of its flights canceled.

That was followed by QantasLink at 7 per cent, Virgin Australia at 5.8 per cent, Jetstar at 5.5 per cent, and Virgin Australia Regional Airlines at 5.3 per cent.

Rex Airlines appeared to be the most reliable last month, with only 0.7 per cent of flights canceled.

The bureau said the weather and issues relating to COVID-19 contributed to the poor performance.

Qantas said a rise in cases of COVID and other illnesses among airline crew as well as the tight labor market led to flight disruptions for all domestic airlines in June.

Across the board, airlines are struggling to return to pre-pandemic performance levels.(ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

Qantas said Sydney Airport was reduced to a single runway for five days because of strong winds, including on June 1, which was the worst day of the month for on time performance and cancellations.

It said there were also staff shortages across the whole aviation industry including air traffic control, which reduced landing and take off rates on seven days during the month at airports around the country.

The airline said it had rostered additional crew on stand-by to lessen the impact of COVID-related crew absences and said cancellations so far this month were down on those recorded in June.

“Everyone at Qantas and Jetstar is focused on turning this performance around,” the spokesperson said.

“We’re already seeing improvements and things will continue to get better month-on-month.

“Call center wait times are now better than they were pre-COVID and our mishandled bag rates are close to what they were before the pandemic.”


Virgin Australia echoed the reasons given for the poor performances, saying flights had been significantly affected by weather events in New South Wales as well as resourcing pressures associated with COVID and the large numbers of passengers returning to travel.

“While this result is not where we want to be, this outcome is a result of the extraordinary efforts of our team who continue to work around the clock to help our guests get to their destinations during busy periods,” a spokesperson said.

Virgin said it had recently made operational changes which had already reduced the number of flights it needed to cancel this month.

It said its cancellation rate was trending in the right direction and was down to 2.4 per cent this week.

Sydney and Melbourne passengers worst affected

Cancellations by all airlines were highest on flights from Sydney to Melbourne at 15.3 per cent, followed by the Melbourne to Sydney route, at 14.9 per cent.

Flights between Sydney and Canberra, and then the Canberra to Melbourne route were among the next highest to be canceled.

Melbourne Airport’s chief of aviation Jim Parashos said airlines had been working hard to rebuild their workforce after being completely shutdown during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021.

He said the flu season and Omicron wave hit operations hard, with federal regulations around minimum crewing requirements regularly grounding an entire service.

“In some cases, it could be just one cabin crew being off sick that then results in a flight being canceled,” Mr Parashos said.

Jim wears a navy suit and blue shirt and smiles as he stands in an airport terminal
Melbourne Airport chief of aviation Jim Parashos says federal regulations are adding to the difficulties being caused by staff shortages and illnesses.(Supplied: Melbourne Airport)

Delays hit airports around the country

For the flights that did go ahead in June, punctuality was a problem across the board.

The on time arrival figure of 63 per cent for June was significantly lower than the long-term average of 82.1 per cent.

Similarly, the bureau said the 61.9 per cent departure figure was also significantly lower than the long-term average of 83.3 per cent.

Rex Airlines was the most punctual, recording 80 per cent for on time arrivals, followed by Virgin Australia recording 62.4 per cent.

Jetstar just edged out its parent company Qantas, with a 59.5 per cent result ahead of the latter’s 59.1 per cent.

Virgin had the most timely departures, with 60.4 per cent of flights leaving as scheduled.

Alice Springs fared the best for arrivals at 87.2 per cent and Armidale Airport had the most flights leave on time, with 81.5 per cent of flights doing so.

Mildura had the tardiest arrivals with only 47.2 per cent of planes landing on time.

The Australian Airports Association chief executive James Goodwin said the aviation industry had a lot of work to do to improve reliability.

“What we want to do is rebuild confidence to the traveling public that they can get to where they want to go, they can do it enjoyably, they can do it reliably,” he said.

“We want to get back to a normal period but at the moment with the patchy recovery, anything that is going to rock confidence is a challenge for everyone.”

Stranded passengers lose faith in airlines

Rachel Power said she no longer had faith in Australia’s airlines after she and a plane full of passengers were recently stranded in a closed Cairns Airport terminal overnight.

After her and family spent the winter school holidays soaking up the warmer air in the tropics, their flight home to Melbourne was delayed for an hour then had to return to Cairns for a medical emergency.

She said after sitting on the tarmac late into the night, the passengers were taken off the plane without explanation for why their service couldn’t resume.

Ms Power said the airline told them there were no vacant hotel room in Cairns to accommodate them, and the family had to spend the night in the airport’s arrivals terminal.

Their flight didn’t depart until the afternoon of the following day.

Passengers are sleeping on top of baggage carousels in an airport terminal.
Rachel Power says she no longer has faith in Australia’s airlines after a planefull of Jetstar passengers were stranded overnight in Cairns Airport.(Supplied: Rachel Power)

She said the experience had made her “extremely reluctant” to book another holiday.

“I felt incredibly sorry for the staff, I think the staff are really bearing the brunt of everyone’s anger and frustration,” Ms Power said.

“I just don’t have much faith in Australia’s major airlines anymore.”

“You can’t book a holiday at a time like this if you are going to fly without being prepared for it to be canceled or delayed.”

Delays could continue for months

Since Easter, Qantas and Jetstar have recruited more than 1,000 operational crew and ground handling suppliers have grown their workforces by 15 per cent.

Mr Parashos said while the hospitality industry could train a new worker in a week, pilots, cabin crew and baggage handlers require more rigorous training to meet regulated standards.

“They’re operating in highly sensitive areas, their work is quite often very technical and of course they need security clearances as well so it can take two or three months sometimes to get people of that nature on board,” he said.

A view inside Melbourne Airport, empty of people.
Activity at airports across Australia has fluctuated with COVID lockdowns over the past few years.(ABC News: Richard Willingham)

Mr Paroshos said the ramping up of skilled migration would help but it would still be some time before the industry bounced back to pre-pandemic levels.

“We will see improvement in the months ahead, and part of that is the airlines are building a bit more resilience into their networks and scheduling to allow for last minute requirements.”

He said Australia was not alone, with the same challenges being faced around the world.

Meanwhile, Mr Goodwin is urging the federal government to include the aviation sector in discussions at an upcoming skills summit.

He said it had been harder to attract staff back to the airports because of the 24-hour nature of the work, “where you’re working shift patterns, where you might have difficulty getting childcare centers to be open at say 4 or 5 o ‘clock in the morning or opening late is obviously going to be an issue’.

He said people in some of the parts of the sector were not eligible for JobKeeper payments during lockdown so found other jobs.

“We’re now suffering the consequences of those decisions, but we need to move on,” Mr Goodwin said.

He said speeding up background and security checks needed for airport jobs could go towards solving the worker shortage.

“We’d really urge that the government streamline some of those processes to make sure that anyone wanting to return to the aviation workforce or start working at the aviation workforce is prioritised.”


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