Flight cancellations, delays hit record levels as airlines struggle to recover from COVID

Australia has confirmed its worst flight cancellation and execution rate on record.

Figures compiled by the Federal Government’s Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics show that only 63 per cent of Qantas, Virgin Atlantic, Jetstar and Rex flights arrived on time in June, while only 61.9 per cent departed on schedule.

It said 5.8 per cent of flights were cancelled, meaning June’s on-time rate figures were the worst since records began in November 2003.

The cancellation rate was more than double the long-term average of 2.1%.

Qantas was the worst performer, cancelling 8.1 per cent of flights.

It was followed by QantasLink at 7%, Virgin Australia at 5.8%, Jetstar at 5.5% and Virgin Australia Regional at 5.3%.

Rex Airlines appeared to be the most reliable airline last month, with only 0.7% of flights cancelled.

Weather and issues related to COVID-19 contributed to the poor performance, the bureau said.

Qantas said an increase in cases of coronavirus and other illnesses among airline crews, as well as a tight labour market, led to the disruption of all domestic airline flights in June.

The airline said it had placed additional crew on standby to mitigate the impact of COVID-related crew absences, and said the number of cancellations so far this month was lower than the June record.

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

“We’ve seen progress and it continues to get better every month.

“Call centre wait times are now better than they were before COVID, and our rates for mishandled bags are close to pre-pandemic levels.”

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

Virgin Australia responded to the reasons for the underperformance, saying flights had been severely impacted by NSW weather events as well as COVID-related resource pressures and large numbers of passengers returning to travel.

“While this result was not what we wanted, it is the result of extraordinary hard work by our team, who continue to work around the clock to help our guests reach their destinations during busy times,” a spokesperson said.

Virgin Atlantic said it had recently made operational adjustments that had reduced the number of flights it needed to cancel this month.

The company said the cancellation rate was heading in the right direction, having dropped to 2.4% this week.

Sydney and Melbourne passengers worst affected

Flights from Sydney to Melbourne had the highest cancellation rate at 15.3 per cent of all airlines, followed by the Melbourne to Sydney route at 14.9 per cent.

Flights between Sydney and Canberra, then the Canberra-Melbourne route, were among the second-highest cancelled.

Melbourne Airport’s aviation director Jim Parashos said airlines had been working to rebuild their workforces after being completely shut down during the 2020 and 2021 lockdowns.

Flu season and the Omicron wave have hit operations hard, and federal regulations on minimum crew requirements have often grounded entire services, he said.

“In some cases, it may have been just one crew member who became ill and the flight was cancelled,” Mr Parazos said.

Jim is wearing a navy suit and blue shirt and smiling while standing in the airport terminal
Jim Parashos, head of aviation at Melbourne Airport, said federal regulations were exacerbating hardships caused by staff shortages and illness.(Provided by: Melbourne Airport)

Delays hit airports across the country

For flights that do take off in June, punctuality is an all-encompassing issue.

On-time arrivals were 63% in June, well below the long-term average of 82.1%.

Likewise, the bureau said the 61.9 per cent departure figure was also well below the long-term average of 83.3 per cent.

Rex was the most punctual with an 80 per cent on-time arrival rate, followed by Virgin Australia at 62.4 per cent.

Jetstar just beat its parent company Qantas by 59.5 per cent, ahead of the latter by 59.1 per cent.

Virgin Atlantic had the most timely departures, with 60.4% of flights on schedule.

Alice Springs had the highest arrival rate at 87.2 per cent, while Armidale Airport had the highest on-time departure rate, with 81.5 per cent of flights departing on-time.

Mildura was the last to arrive, with only 47.2% of planes landing on time.

Delays could last for months

Mr Parashos said airports and airlines were aggressively hiring more staff in response to illness and shortages.

But he said while the hospitality industry could train a new employee in a week, pilots, cabin crew and baggage handlers would need more rigorous training to meet regulatory standards.

“They operate in highly sensitive areas, their work is often very technical, and of course they also require security clearances, so it can sometimes take two to three months to get people of this nature on board,” Mr Parashos said.

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

An increase in skilled immigration will help, but it will still take some time for the industry to return to pre-pandemic levels, he said.

“We will see improvements in the coming months, and part of that is that airlines are building more resiliency into their networks and scheduling to allow for last-minute requests.”

He said Australia was not alone and the same challenges were being faced around the world.

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