Australia’s Domestic Airline Recovery Suffers Huge Blow

After a few months of steady recovery and goals of near 2019 flying levels, domestic flying in Australia has suffered a serious blow with another round of city-wide lockdowns and internal border closures. But recently released statistics show a recovering domestic airline market in a taste of what could have been. Now, that recovery is shot to pieces.

May 2021 was a good month for Australia’s domestic airlines as passenger numbers continued to recover. Photo: Getty Images

BITRE statistics reveal a recovering domestic airline market in Australia

The Australian Government’s Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics (BITRE) released May 2021 domestic passenger statistics on Friday. The statistics paint a picture of a recovering domestic airline market that has since taken another COVID-related hit.

In May, passenger numbers on commercial scheduled flights were 31% below May 2019 levels. Some 4.89 million passengers flew domestically in Australia in May 2019. In May 2021, that number was 3.38 million. However, in May 2020, just 176,000 passengers took a domestic flight.

There were 48,800 thousand aircraft trips in May. This compares with 58,400 aircraft trips in May 2019 and just 13,200 aircraft trips in May 2020.

May saw a re-ordering of who was flying where. Last year, amid ongoing internal border closures, intrastate airline travel had a rare moment in the spotlight. Australia’s busiest airline route was Brisbane (BNE) – Cairns (CNS). Other routes suddenly punching above their weight included Sydney (SYD) – Ballina (BNK), Brisbane – Townsville (TSV), and Perth (PER) – Broome (BME).

In May, the route between Sydney and Melbourne was again Australia’s busiest. Photo: Melbourne Airport

Sydney – Melbourne was Australia’s busiest airline route in May

But in May, order was restored with Sydney – Melbourne (MEL) taking the top spot as Australia’s busiest airline route. In May, 3,613 flights flew 378,700 passengers between Australia’s two busiest cities. It pales beside the 768,109 passengers who made the trip in May 2019, but it is leaps and bounds ahead of the May 2020 figure of 19,000 passengers.

With Sydney and Melbourne now in lockdown and most other Australian states closing their borders to residents of both cities, July 2021 traffic numbers on what is normally the world’s second-busiest airline route will collapse again.

The second busiest route in May was the sector between Sydney and Brisbane. This link between Australia’s biggest and third-biggest cities normally takes this spot. In May, 223,300 passengers flew the sector. This compares favorably with the 18,700 passengers who made the flight in May 2020 but is less impressive than the 396,500 passengers who flew between the two cities in May 2019.

Brisbane is the capital city of Queensland, and Queensland’s borders are firmly shut to residents from the Greater Sydney region right now.

The route between Sydney and Brisbane was Australia’s second busiest in May. Photo: Brisbane Airport Corporation

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The Gold Coast shone in May

The third-busiest route in May is normally between Melbourne and Brisbane. All in southeast Australia, these top three routes form what is referred to as the golden triangle. Thick with corporate travelers, these routes are rich revenue streams for the airlines that fly them.

Reflecting a switch from corporate to leisure travel, in May 2021, the third busiest domestic route in Australia was between Sydney and the Gold Coast (OOL). In May, 164,900 passengers jetted between two cities. In May 2019, 206,400 passengers made the trip, then making it Australia’s fourth busiest route.

Just south of Brisbane, OOL is strictly a leisure rather than a corporate destination. The glitter strip’s continuing popularity indicates while COVID might be slowing down corporate travel in Australia, plenty of people remain happy to travel for holidays – borders permitting.

With flights from Sydney and Melbourne making up the bulk of traffic in the Gold Coast and the city closed to residents of both cities, OOL will be a lot quieter this month than it was in May.

Relegated to the fourth spot is the Melbourne – Brisbane sector. In May, 159,600 passengers flew between the two cities, compared with 16,100 passengers in May 2020. By contrast, in May 2019, 276,500 passengers made the flight on the third leg of the golden triangle.

Rounding out the May top five positions is the Melbourne – Gold Coast sector. In May, 148,700 passengers flew the sector.

The Gold Coast Airport hosted two of Australia’s top five domestic routes in May. Photo: Andrew Curran / Simple Flying

The recent spate of lockdowns and restrictions batter Australia’s airlines

Australia’s Regional Express (Rex) recently took to flying Boeing 737-800s on a handful of top-tier domestic trunk routes, including the two routes into the Gold Coast from Sydney and Melbourne. But the current lockdowns are hitting Rex hard. In recent comments made to CNBC, Rex’s John Sharp said the fresh round of lockdowns and border restrictions had cut business by 80%.

Competitors Qantas, Jetstar, and Virgin Australia won’t be having an easier time of it. Jetstar was back flying at 2019 levels, and Qantas was on target to hit 2019 levels. Downsized Virgin Australia was also trending upwards and bolstering operations.

Normally vocal airline CEOs have gone quiet. That rare silence is perhaps indicative of how serious this present round of border closures and travel restrictions are to Australia’s domestic airline industry.

Australia’s Airlines have lost much of their recovery progress in the last month. Photo: Getty Images

Adelaide enjoyed a moment in the sun

Rounding out the May top ten routes were two Adelaide (AFL) routes. Adelaide – Melbourne, and Adelaide – Sydney took out the sixth and seventh spots, respectively. Adelaide enjoyed a few months in the sun as eastern seaboard leisure travelers flocked to the normally overlooked city on weekend jaunts.

But Adelaide is the capital city of South Australia, and South Australia has now closed its borders to residents of both Sydney and Melbourne. This has seen Adelaide’s popularity gains evaporate almost instantly.

Two Queensland intrastate routes managed to stay in the top ten. Both Brisbane – Cairns (CNS) and Brisbane – Townsville (TSV) made the list. It will be a few months before BITRE releases this month’s figures, but it’s fair to assume these two routes will shot up the rankings again at the expense of the top five routes.

Also, in the May 2021 top ten is the run between Sydney and Perth (9th spot). 72,300 passengers made the flight in May, encouraged perhaps by Qantas flicking Dreamliners onto the route midway through the month. But with Western Australia closed again to Sydneysiders, the route will drop off the top ten this month.

Qantas put a 787-9 Dreamliner onto the Sydney – Perth route. Photo: Qantas

Thinner routes will rise to the top of the rankings again

The May figure revealed a steady trajectory back towards normal flying operations for Australia’s domestic airlines. But things began to go pear-shaped about a month ago. Now, it is almost back to square one. Sydney and Melbourne are core to the jet operations of Australia’s domestic airlines. Both cities are shut down. Flights are open on many routes between Australia’s smaller states, but far fewer people fly them, and even fewer are willing to travel and risk borders to their home state closing while away (or even while inflight).

It is a sorry state of affairs that the May 2021 statistics don’t illustrate. Instead, the passenger numbers in May reveal what could have been a bumper flying season for airlines had things not gone so wrong.