Singapore Airlines Cuts Australia Flights Amid Border Confusion

Singapore Airlines is canceling dozens of flights into Australia over the next few months. The airline attributes the decision to strict limits on how many passengers they can fly in and uncertainty over border re-openings. It adds to the backlog of people trying to get a flight to Australia.

Singapore Airlines is cutting at least one flight a day into Australia over the next few months. Photo: Singapore Airlines

“We don’t have the clarity we need to have, the confidence to operate,” Karl Schubert, Singapore Airlines Head of Corporate Affairs for the Southwest Pacific told ABC Radio on Wednesday morning.

Singapore Airlines has continued to fly to various Australian ports since the travel downturn began. Mr Schubert says the airline has operated 3,600 flights since April 2020, carrying some 270,000 passengers.

Mid-year, Australian politicians, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison, talked up the prospects of a quarantine-free travel corridor between Singapore and Australia. That followed a face-to-face meeting between Morrison and Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Based on this, Singapore Airlines added dozens of additional flights to Australia. Tens of thousands of Australian’s remain stranded overseas, including many in Singapore. But because no travel corridor ever eventuated, Singapore Airlines is canceling those flights. Over the next few months, at least one Singapore Airlines flight a day to Australia is being canceled. In the process, thousands of passengers are once again bumped off flights.

Scott Morrison (left) meeting Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong (right) in June. Photo: Singapore Government

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Tight passenger limits put pressure on Singapore Airlines

There are hopes of quarantine-free travel between the two countries resuming later this year for vaccinated travelers. But Australia is yet to give the plan the official go-ahead. Singapore Airlines needs more than vague plans and aspirations about border re-openings.

Adding to the problems are strict caps on the number of passengers Singapore Airlines can fly into Australia. A mandatory 14-day hotel quarantine awaiting all inbound passengers in Australia. Quarantine bed availability and local health resources limit the number of international passengers allowed into the country.

Sydney, Australia’s biggest airport and city, was accepting around 3,000 inbound passengers a week. In July, that was halved to around 1,500. It has since been cut to 750 passengers a week.  Other cities take even fewer inbound passengers.

That’s caused Singapore Airlines to convert one of their two daily passenger services into Sydney to cargo only.

That is due to the fact that we are not allocated the number of passengers to make it viable to operate these flights,” says Mr Schubert. Saying the number of passengers Singapore Airlines is allowed to fly into Australia on each flight varies between destination ports and days, the airline executive added;

“I think if you were to take the number of 12 up to 25 (passengers), that is the variance we have. Particular flights vary per day. The (Australian) Government has zeroed out some flights. Some days we’ve been told we just don’t have a passenger allocation, ‘you can’t carry passengers in.’ On those days, unfortunately, we do have to cancel our flights.”

It isn’t a problem unique to Singapore Airlines. American Airlines was regularly flying into Sydney from Los Angeles. But after zero passengers were allowed on 20 flights over July and August, the airline decided to pause their flights to Sydney. Simple Flying is aware United’s daily flight to Sydney is allowed an average of eight passengers per day. Qatar Airways fares slightly better, being allowed an average of 15 passengers per day.

Big Singapore Airlines jets are flying very few passengers into Australia. Photo: Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines wants clarity on Australian border re-opening

It’s not just passenger limits putting pressure on Singapore’s Australian operations. The airline wants some certainty over border re-openings. Calling for clear direction, guidelines, and working parameters from the Australian Government, Karl Schubert says Singapore Airlines has the capacity to reinstate flights quickly if demand warrants.

Saying rising vaccination rates and expectations of that travel corridor saw Singapore Airlines (and other airlines) add capacity to Australia at the end of 2021, Mr Schubert said there had been a lack of engagement from the Australian Government about border re-openings.

“That has been frustrating at times,” Mr Schubert said. “We certainly welcome the commentary that coming from the Government. We need to get the airlines, airports, governments at state and federal levels around the table to talk about how Australia is going to re-open. What are the parameters are going to be to operate flights viably, but also in a manner that meets the Government’s expectations of health and safety requirements?”

Singapore Airlines is keen to see “absolute clarity” about the rules surrounding Australia’s border re-opening.

“The clarity we need we don’t have at the moment. Like how they are going to treat people who have been vaccinated overseas as opposed to Australia? What vaccines is Australia going to accept, and how are they going to verify? What’s the responsibility or expectations of airlines?”

Singapore Airlines wants Australia to clarify its protocols for resuming international travel. Photo: IATA

Lack of clarity is a recurring problem

With flights already operating into Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, and Adelaide, Karl Schubert says the airline is well-positioned to capitalize on passenger limits lifting and borders re-opening. Even without extra flights, hundreds of empty seats on these existing flights can easily be added to inventory and sold.

However, frustrations at Singapore Airlines with the Australian Government’s lack of engagement is mirrored at other airlines. Barry Abrams, head of local airline group, the Board of Airline Representatives of Australia (BARA), told The Sydney Morning Herald that other airlines faced the same problem.

“The frustration is there is now talk from governments about effectively starting to reopen in three months from now, and airlines really have no idea what that could mean in practice,” he said.

A recurring theme from Karl Schubert on Wednesday morning was the lack of clarity from the Australian Government. It’s not restricted to the airline industry. There seems to be an expectation from state and federal level Governments in Australia that businesses and industries can resume normal trading tomorrow if needed be, with a moment’s notice. But as cosseted politicians often fail to realize, the real world isn’t like that.