Canberra Airport Eyes Boost To International Operations

Canberra Airport’s quest for more international flights continues. Procuring and keeping international services at Canberra has long been a challenge for the airport’s owner, sometimes even bordering on the quixotic.

Canberra Airport is keen to see more international services into the bush capital. Photo: Canberra Airport via Facebook.

International flights on airport’s radar for a long time

An update and refresh of the airport’s 20-year masterplan indicates an admirable degree of persistence by the airport’s owners.

A report in today’s Canberra Times says Canberra Airport wants to see one million international passengers annually by 2040. That’s ambitious given the airport now sees less than a tenth of that number. Canberra Airport’s head of aviation Michael Thomson told the Canberra Times;

It’s always been a vision of Canberra Airport to increase access to international routes for the region, and we’ve seen the success of Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines, and we want to look beyond that.”

Singapore Airlines and Qatar Airways both fly into Canberra. They are both relatively recent arrivals at the airport. Singapore Airlines commenced flights in 2016 and now flies a Boeing 777-300ER aircraft in. Qatar Airways began flying into Canberra in 2018, now operating a sleek A350-1000 into the national capital.

Why the plan might be hard to realize

Canberra Airport handles about three million passengers a year. But the vast bulk of those are domestic passengers. According to Australian government BITRE statistics, there were only 85,023 international passenger movements in the 12 months to the end of November 2019. This was down 12.3% on the 96,884 international passenger movements in the 12 months to the end of November 2018.

Qatar Airways flies to Canberra to get around Qatar’s Air Services Agreement with Australia. This agreement puts a ceiling of 21 Qatar Airways flights a week across Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth Airports. The Canberra flight allows Qatar Airways to operate an extra service into Sydney. But the Canberra flights, whilst handy for the Canberra locals using it, are operating with passenger loads of around 12%.

Canberra Airport Eyes Boost To International Operations
The bulk of flights to and from Canberra are domestic, primarily to Sydney and Melbourne. Photo: Canberra Airport via Facebook.

Singapore Airlines’ service is more successful. In 2018, the airline took the service from four times a week to daily after abandoning the fifth freedom service to Wellington, New Zealand. Loads are said to be decent and the nonstop service to Singapore allows passengers the chance to avoid the dreaded Sydney Airport transit.

There’s probably half a million people living within 50 kilometers of Canberra Airport. It’s hardly the Pearl Delta catchment but it is something. The key problem for boosting international flights from Canberra is Sydney Airport. Sure, Sydney Airport is a big sprawling mess, but it is well connected and less than three hours up the motorway. Sydney also has far better wider brand recognition than Canberra.

Regardless, Canberra Airport keen on more international services

According to their masterplan, Canberra Airport would like nonstop flights to Fiji, Bali, Los Angeles, Malaysia, Dubai, Hong Kong and Tokyo by 2040.

Flights between Canberra and Fiji were tried in 2004 and didn’t work. Okay, times change, but this list is a big ask for a small city airport living under the shadow of its much bigger sibling airport just up the road.

Mr Thomson told the Canberra Times that the airport was talking to several airlines and was concentrating on China and New Zealand.

Some interesting possibilities

This raises a number of interesting scenarios and possibilities. Canberra to Auckland is one viability possibility. It’s unlikely to be Qantas though. They have near-zero interest in international flights outside their local ports of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Both Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand are busy cutting costs as they tackle declining or no profits and they are unlikely to risk their sparse cash reserves on an unproven and speculative route.

Don’t forget Singapore Airlines couldn’t make their inter-capital service between Canberra and Wellington work.

A Qatar Airways flight powering out of Canberra Airport. Photo: Canberra Airport via Facebook.

As for Chinese carriers, after years of dumping capacity all over the place, most of them are finally exercising some vaguely judicious judgment about where and when they fly to. That’s all before the coronavirus epidemic too. Frankly, if Tasmania’s Hobart can’t lure a Chinese carrier in, there doesn’t seem much hope for Canberra on this front. Besides, there are more Chinese carriers than you can throw a wonton at up the road in Sydney.

This combines to suggest that Canberra Airport, despite its vision, will struggle to attract more international carriers. It is too close to Sydney, it’s too small, and it lacks wider brand recognition.

What do you think? Am I wrong here? Post a comment and tell me why.