Airlines’ performance soars as pandemic turbulence subsides

It has been a troubled few years for Australia’s airlines after COVID-19 slammed borders shut and grounded so many aircraft.

But the industry has recorded a sharp improvement in many areas that caused travellers to complain in droves.

On-time performance among the big airlines has improved massively from COVID lows, with far fewer cancelled and delayed flights these days, according to June figures from the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts.

In June (the most recent data available), the industry averaged 69 per cent of flights arriving on time and 70.3 per cent departing on time. That was a significant improvement from 63 per cent and 61.9 per cent respectively in 2022.

Cancellations have also fallen, with just 3.6 per cent of flights scratched by the industry in June 2023, compared to 5.8 per cent in the same month in 2022, according to figures published late last month by the Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics.

The latest data comes after Jetstar chief executive Stephanie Tully earlier this week apologised to customers for poor performance during the pandemic years.

Ms Tully encouraged people to give the budget carrier another go now that its performance is improving.

“We apologise to everyone we’ve let down over our 20-year history,” Ms Tully told Melbourne’s 3AW radio.

“We had a number of supply chain issues with parts etc, so we’ve had to work extra hard and do extra things to make sure Jetstar’s performing the way people expect.”

Focus on Qantas

It was only 18 months ago that increasing numbers of Australians were complaining about the major airlines, with figures revealed this week by the AFR showing a sharp rise in complaints against Qantas Group for poor service and an inability to use travel credits last year.

The data shows complaints against the entire industry rose to 6918 in 2022, with Qantas receiving about 4000 of those, followed by Jetstar.

Qantas also copped criticism for its poor standards after benefitting from billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money in support during COVID-19.

But official data shows Qantas and its subsidiary Jetstar have improved their on-time performance, demonstrated in the below graph.

‘Positive’ direction

Veteran aviation industry consultant Neil Hansford said the industry was headed in a “positive” direction, with big players such as Jetstar benefitting from investments in much newer aircraft.

Mr Hansford said replacing Jetstar’s A321 and A320 fleet with much newer models had meant far fewer flights were cancelled and delayed because of maintenance problems.

“The biggest problem they went through [during COVID-19] was aircraft having to be stored and then brought back,” he said.

“There was a gross shortage of spare parts for repairs and engineers weren’t available.”

With many of those issues largely resolved, service standards are lifting too, though on-time departures and arrivals have not yet returned to pre-COVID levels.

There are also lingering concerns about competition among airlines for popular routes between Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney as challenger airlines such as Regional Express (Rex) and Bonza complain that Qantas is effectively hoarding space at Sydney Airport.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has warned that the way slots are allocated at Sydney Airport must be reformed to provide smaller airlines with an opportunity to compete. In turn, that would put downward pressure on airfares.

But upwards pressure on airfares should ease anyway because fuel prices had come down from earlier highs, and more flights were being scheduled as the industry recovered from the pandemic, Mr Hansford said.

“The capacity is coming back into the market.”

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