Long the dominant force in Australia's skies, Qantas has pared its domestic network and its fleet to the bone beginning this Easter weekend as demand for air travel reaches rock bottom.
"For the next few weeks we’ll essentially be flying three aircraft – a Qantas 737, a Jetstar A320 and a QantasLink Dash 8 – so that will be the entire domestic network," Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce told airline staff during a Town Hall teleconference held briefing on Wednesday April 8.
As of Friday April 10 the airline slashed routes across the country, driven by a dark alignment of factors including states closing their borders and governments warning people to stay at home, and in many cases restricting all but essential activities.
One flight per day
The once-crowded air corridor between Sydney and Melbourne, which typically sees around 50 Qantas and Jetstar flights each day, has been reduced to just five flights per week.
On some days this is a tiny QantasLink Dash 8 turboprop which travels via Canberra – the last red-tailed link between the nation's capital and it's two largest cities. On other days, it's joined by a Qantas Boeing 737 which darts directly between Sydney and Melbourne.
Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth have almost vanished from Qantas' network map.
Between Sydney and Perth – a route which at the heights of the Qantas-Virgin 'transcontinental turf war' in 2011-2012 even saw a mighty 364-seat Qantas Boeing 747 thunder its way onto the east-west roster, alongside a handful of daily Airbus A330s – is now stripped back to a 174-seat Boeing 737 running just twice a week.
Still more cuts could come
"What we've seen for both Qantas and Jetstar is a continuing reduction in demand on all of our flights," Qantas Domestic CEO Andrew David said during the Qantas all-hands teleconference, adding that "especially with all the states around the country introducing different travel restrictions, demand has petty much vanished."
"We’ve got some flights where we’ve got one or two passengers on board. That's clearly not sustainable, it's burning cash when we can least afford it."
David described the revised network as one of "minimum connections between cities and regions" but indicated yet more cuts could follow, saying "we'll continue to monitor the demand levels and we will make further reductions on top of the reductions we’ve already made if those services continue to burn cash."
A Qantas spokesperson clarified that "as the national carrier, we continue to operate flights for the resources sector within Western Australia and Queensland and we’re also maintaining key freight links with our fleet of freighter aircraft."
Although Qantas has been pushing passengers booked on cancelled flights to accept travel vouchers which can be held as credit against future trips, customers also have the right to request a full refund if the airline
- is unable to carry you on a confirmed reservation
- delays your flight to the extent that you must cancel your travel plans
- makes a “significant change” to your flight’s scheduled timings, and no other flights are acceptable to you
- cancels your flight and cannot offer you a suitable alternative replacement.
The slow road to recovery
Joyce has previously revealed that the airline has drawn up plans should the COVID-19 pandemic continue "for three months, six months, nine months, a year”. Nobody knows when this is going to end.”
However, Qantas has formed a dedicated “startup team” tasked with ramping up operations when the time comes.
“The start-up team is working out what that looks like so that we can activate it when the market turns, so we can be ahead of the curve, because we need to be ahead of the curve to help Australia get back on its feet."
Domestic travel is widely expected to rebound first, but build slowly, with the first wave of some business and personal travellers venturing out between six and nine months after COVID-19 is declared as being "under control".
International travel will gain steam through to the 18 month mark, led by business travellers and mid-to high-tier frequent flyers, with holiday-makers trailing by a further six months – which could mean air travel may not be back to normal, or at least as close to the old normal as the new normal will get, until 2023.