Airlines warn NSW may reopen to international travel but with few planes to service huge demand

By: Elias Visontay

Foreign airlines won’t be able to ramp up operations to meet the mass reopening of international travel into Sydney when 80% vaccination is reached because they will need several months to recall laid-off staff and retrieve planes that have been parked in deserts.

Barry Abrams, the executive director of the Board of Airline Representatives of Australia, told Guardian Australia that airlines continued to be left in the dark about what the new rules and passenger limits would be, leaving them stuck “in a holding pattern” unable to commence planning for resuming routes.

Passenger allowances were a key factor for airlines in determining the financial viability of their routes, and Abrams warned that carriers that had not flown to the country in more than a year had not yet begun allocating aircraft or staff to Australian routes, nor had they begun renegotiating contracts with ground handling crews and local supply businesses.

His warning comes as Singapore Airlines confirmed it would be further cutting the number of flights flying into Australia, blaming a lack of certainty over plans to lift passenger caps for the move which will see dozens of flights canceled before the Christmas period.

“We have no clarity on the removal of international arrival caps, throughout that October to December period, so we’ve had to make the very difficult decision that we simply can’t operate the two additional flights that we were hoping to do into Sydney,” Karl Schubert, a spokesperson for the airline, told ABC radio on Wednesday.

Airlines are currently flying planes with about 6,000 empty seats a day into Sydney airport and were only able to carry 110 passengers. Abrams warned the logistical hurdles international airlines must plan for to introduce new services meant passenger intake won’t dramatically increase for several months.

“Without any clear plan here, there is simply no logical reason for an international airline to begin considering increasing its flights into Australia,” Abrams said.

Passenger caps were halved nationally in July and resulted in some commercial flights being given a zero passenger allocation and forced to rely on cargo to subsidise the operation cost.

At the end of August, the New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, announced the state would further halve its international arrivals intake to about 750 people a week so health workers within the hotel quarantine system could be redeployed to the state’s under-pressure hospital system.

In the same announcement, Berejiklian vowed NSW would scale up its quarantine intake again once the state reached its 80% double-dose vaccination target, and revealed an ambition for NSW to repatriate a larger share of Australians, including those from other states, in time to spend Christmas at home.

Last week, Berejiklian said “we will definitely be opening up Sydney airport to welcome home Australians” once 80% is achieved, and indicated that home quarantine for fully vaccinated arrivals could be introduced in some form once the 70% double dose target is reached – predicted for the middle of October.

This week, the Morrison government took a major step towards establishing a vaccine passport for international travel, awarding a contract to international IT company Accenture for new digital passenger declarations, after suggesting it would have a system in place within weeks.

However, Abrams – whose group Bara represents airlines including Qatar Airways, Etihad, Emirates, United Airlines and Singapore Airlines – was not confident airlines could resume operations as quickly as governments were hoping.

Abrams said that theoretically, even the skeleton passenger operations still flying into Sydney added up to more than 35,000 seats a week, which could repatriate the roughly 40,000 Australians still stranded overseas relatively quickly.

However, he said health and security staff employed at airports, as well as airline crews, were not currently staffed anywhere near the levels required to process these passengers.

“Currently flights take on average about 10 or so passengers … If the government tomorrow said they could take 100 passengers per flight, while there would be the demand, there is no way they could possibly process that number of passengers,” Abrams said.

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