The summer school holidays will be the “final test” for Australian airlines struggling to cope with staff shortages and passenger demand, with experts warning that the situation is unlikely to improve until next year.
The warning comes after local airlines delivered the worst month on record for on-time flights and cancellations.
Daniel Kwek, director of the aviation program at the University of South Australia, said the next travel peak period of November and December will be the final test for the aviation industry, but expects traffic volumes they will decline and “reach some form of equilibrium” by January.
“I would expect some chaos again in November / December due to the school holiday season, but I expect it will improve next year,” said Kwek.
Kwek said it is unlikely that we will see a repeat of the magnitude of the disruptions experienced in July, partially fueled by pent-up demand.
“After all-time lows, airlines are doing a lot right now to minimize this happening again. Airports are now in a better place to handle the December crowds,” he said.
According to data from the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITER), Australian airlines had the worst month on record for on-time performance and cancellations in July.
Airlines reported an average punctuality performance of just 55% for arrivals and 54% for departures, significantly lower than the 2019 averages over the same period of 73.9% and 75.7%. Jetstar had the highest cancellation rate with 8.8%.
It’s the worst performance since the monthly BITER report began in November 2003, with a spokesperson for the department also citing “weather and COVID-related issues” impacting operations.
Despite indicators showing improvements in August, navigation is still not smooth, with engineering issues impacting Jetstar’s international flights this week.
Katerina Andreevski was one of thousands of Australians involved in Jetstar’s troubles after a canceled flight left her and about 50 others stranded in Bangkok over the weekend.
The 59-year-old says Jetstar staff were nowhere to be found when she learned that her connecting flight had been canceled for technical reasons.
“It was awful. There was no support, no assistance, no hotel vouchers, nothing. We were dropped off at the Bangkok airport to fend for ourselves,” said Andreevski, who says he has not yet received a refund despite had to fork out $ 1600 for a new return flight.
With few flights available, Andreevski opted for a Vietnam Airlines service departing the next day with two stopovers that would have taken 30 hours.
Andreevski described the airline’s lack of assistance during the two-day ordeal as “inhumane”.
“I was taking care of four elderly passengers with no English, no credit cards, who were stressed out after traveling 50 hours from Europe,” he said. “After walking around the airport trying to find someone to help us, my feet were so swollen that I couldn’t walk.”
Elsewhere, around 4,000 Jetstar customers have been canceled on their flight to Bali due to maintenance and engineering issues with half of the airline’s long-haul fleet out of service.
On Wednesday, the Qantas-owned low-cost airline launched the first of five special services to bring people home, with around 180 Jetstar customers yet to rebook alternative flights.
Jetstar apologized to customers for the outage, citing “lightning, a bird strike, damage from an item on the runway and delays in procuring a specific spare part” for cancellations.
Mike Arnot of aviation analysis firm Cirium said Australian carriers will have learned valuable lessons from the Northern Hemisphere summer season.
“In North America, the peak of travel chaos was July 15, the busiest flight day of the summer, but it subsided very quickly. There were pockets of problem areas at specific airports, but a combination of hiring Ground crew, schedule reductions and passenger patience seem to have eased tensions, “Arnot said.
“An airline’s job is to use the data to peer into a crystal ball and they will have more planes, more crew and, along with airports, more ground personnel by summer 2023.”
The Australian aviation industry, which has stepped up its recruiting efforts and made operational changes in the wake of the July outages, is already noticing an increase in performance ahead of the September school holidays.
Virgin Australia, which recorded 874 cancellations in July, improved on-time performance to close to 70% in August from 51%. Qantas, which recorded 458 cancellations in July, raised its punctual performance to 67% from 52%, with a target of 75% in September.
Sydney Airport will hold a second job fair on 21 September to recruit more than 4,000 vacancies for the September school holidays and Christmas period.
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