Quarantine Caps Mean United’s Sydney Flights Are Only 20% Full

From Saturday, July 4th, the New South Wales government introduced a cap of just 50 people per international flight arriving at Sydney Airport. The cap was put in place as airlines around the world look to resume long-haul operations after the global pandemic caused mass groundings. United Airlines is looking to resume flights to Sydney from Los Angeles from early September. If the restriction is still in place, the airline will be flying with a load factor of just 20%.

United 787
United Airlines normally operates a 787-9 to Sydney. The aircraft can hold 252 passengers. Photo: Boeing

The new restrictions for Sydney Airport were introduced after Melbourne saw a rise in coronavirus cases. The resulting closure of Melbourne Airport put extra strain on Sydney’s quarantine facilities.

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Currently, anyone arriving in Australia must isolate in a hotel for two weeks. The New South Wales government has already spent over AU$50 million (US$34million) on quarantine facilities. To prevent further pressure on Sydney, the airport will only receive 450 passengers per day. Each aircraft is allowed to carry a maximum of 50 passengers plus crew members.

United Airlines had planned to operate three flights per week to Sydney from Los Angeles starting September 8th. Previously the airline used a Boeing 787-9 for its Sydney route. The aircraft has 252 seats, including 48 business class, 88 Economy Plus, and 116 economy. The capacity cap means just 20% of the seats can be filled. Almost every passenger could fly in a business class seat with just two in Economy Plus.

Is it worth it?

For many, it may seem financially unwise to resume flights with so few passengers. But for United, cargo operations are still a crucial part of their services. Flights to Sydney can be mainly cargo flights with just a few passengers helping to cover fuel costs.

The NSW government is aware of the financial difficulties the cap imposes on airlines and is relying on these issues to stop flights operating. In a statement, the Australian High Commission said, “some flights may no longer be viable and therefore will not operate.

United Cargo
United can use cargo as a way to make the flight financially viable. The route will mainly be a cargo operation with just a few passengers unless restrictions lift. Photo: United Airlines

In contrast, United is also looking to resume flights to China from today. An internal memo shared on Twitter states that United will be able to fill these flights to 75% capacity. The memo says, “For our Boeing 777-300, this equates to 262 revenue and non-revenue passengers”; a much more robust option than the Australian routes.

Ongoing restrictions in Australia

Although the restrictions for Sydney airport are stringent, several airlines are still flying to the airport. Air New Zealand, Singapore Airlines, Etihad Airways, ANA, Qatar Airways, Malaysia Airlines, China Eastern, Cathay Pacific, and Emirates all have operational flights to and from Sydney. Emirates operates the largest aircraft to fly into Sydney airport, a Boeing 777-300. It can seat up to 427 passengers depending on the seat configuration.

While many airlines are still hoping to fly to Sydney over the coming weeks. National carrier Qantas has suspended all international flights. Photo: Qantas News Room.

Although most airlines are keen to operate flights, it is unclear how long the rule will last. The Australian High Commission in the UK reported that the restriction would not be lifted before July 17th. But, realistically, it is likely it will stay in place until Melbourne Airport reopens. However, as Perth and Adelaide are also looking to introduce arrival caps, travel to Australia will not return to normal for some months.