International airlines are ramping up their calls for an increase the number of passengers permitted to enter Australia ahead of the government’s review of the limit of 4,000 inbound travellers each week.
Intended to ease pressure on the mandatory hotel quarantine system, the cap system runs until October 24 and pegs arrivals at 350 passengers per day at Sydney, 525 passengers per week at Perth, and 500 passengers per week at Adelaide and Brisbane.
Flight limits in Canberra and Darwin are decided “on a case by case basis,” the government says, while Melbourne remains closed to all inbound travellers.
However, with an estimated 20,000 Australians stranded overseas and unable to book a flight due to the strict limits – which sees some flights carrying as few as 30 passengers – pressure is mounting for a significant increase on international airport arrivals.
Qatar closes bookings
Qatar Airways has already said it will stop accepting new bookings for flights to Australia until the current passenger cap is relaxed.
Executive Traveller understands that airlines are working with the government on a two-weekly basis to have their passenger loads for each flight approved and allocated for the coming fortnight.
“Due to the dynamic nature of the pandemic, airlines operating flights to Australia have faced ever-changing restrictions, often imposed on short notice,” the airline said in a statement.
It claims this has led to a “cascading effect” on bookings made weeks or even months in advance, resulting in “many passengers having their tickets rebooked onto later flights several times as demand exceeds the new caps announced.”
According to Qatar Airways CEO His Excellency Akbar Al Baker, managing the impact of this on passengers was becoming “increasingly challenging”.
“While we continue to work closely with the Australian authorities to protect public health, unfortunately many disappointed passengers are unable to travel as per their travel plans,” Al Baker said.
Business class prioritised
“Given the restrictions, we cannot accommodate these passengers on an alternative flight the following day where we face the exact same issue, so the problem continues to grow daily.”
Al Baker has also pointed out that the high cost of flying to Australia and the limited number of passengers means that airlines have to prioritise expensive business class bookings on mostly-empty aircraft.
“It is a very long flight and when we carry limited numbers of passengers you can see that it puts a huge strain on our costs,” he told ABC News Breakfast.
"We have between 38 and 42 seats in our business class, and because we have such a limited number of passengers that we can carry, we have no other alternative” in order to cover the cost of operating the flight.
Allowing more travellers into Australia would consequently free up a higher number of cheaper economy class fares.
A growing backlog
The Board of Airline Representatives of Australia, which represents over 30 international airlines serving Australia, says that the growing backlog of passengers now stretches towards the end of this year.
“When you can only fill a sixth of the seats, the cost equation (for airlines) becomes terrible,” explained BARA executive director Barry Abrams. “The issue here is not availability of seats. There’s no shortage of seats. It comes down to the caps.”
“A target average of at least 100 passengers per arriving flight, while still difficult financially, is far better than 30 or less.”
Abrams said that international airlines are now forced to continually juggle passenger bookings based for priority travel back to Australia on compassionate grounds.
“International airlines are effectively ‘triaging’ the many cases put to them in the context of an already long passenger waiting list.”
“Given the existing backlog of passengers, greater flexibility within caps would also mean international airlines are better placed to support hardship cases, as there are plenty of spare seats on every flight.”
More airlines may pull out
Singapore Airlines is also looking to find a balance between arrivals controls and getting Australians home.
“We are working closely with all relevant stakeholders to ensure inbound flights do not place any additional burden on Australian quarantine facilities, while also ensuring customers are provided with options to return home from overseas or undertake essential travel,” says Karl Schubert, Public Relations Manager, South West Pacific for Singapore Airlines.
“We continue to monitor passenger numbers on inbound flights to Australia and will make adjustments to bookings as necessary to comply with caps on inbound passenger arrivals,” Schubert told Executive Traveller.
As previously reported, Malaysia Airlines will suspend flights to Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth from October 25, 2020 to late March 2021 as they are no longer “commercially viable” due to limited passenger numbers.
BARA chief Abrams suggested that more airlines would follow, further reducing the options available for Australians to return home.
“At Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth Airports the small weekly caps of between 500 and 525 passengers can be commercially unviable for international airlines, especially if this small number is intended to be spread out evenly across the week.”