Normally it is one of the busiest routes in the world. On your average day, you might see 70 plus flights operating each way between Sydney and Melbourne. But yesterday, Saturday, 11 April, things were decidedly sleepy. Virgin Australia had no flights. Tigerair is not flying. Jetstar had a single service down to Melbourne. Qantas, the big daddy of Australian aviation, had just one flight to Melbourne. That flight was on a turboprop and it went via Canberra.
On Saturday morning, a 74 seat QantasLink Q400 trundled down to Melbourne via Canberra. It took nearly three hours. In the evening, Qantas’ low-cost subsidiary Jetstar flew an A320 down to Melbourne. This later flight went direct.
If you think that’s an anemic schedule, the pickings will be slimmer next week.
An anemic schedule gets worse next week
Disregarding a smattering of government underwritten international services, freight flights, and FIFO mining operations, Qantas and Virgin Australia have all but shut down.
Across its entire domestic network, Virgin Australia is only operating one service – a six day a week return service between Sydney and Melbourne. Twenty four hours prior, seats remain available on tomorrow’s flights.
Tigerair, Virgin’s low-cost subsidiary has suspended all operations.
Next week, Qantas will have a single daily Boeing 737 return service between Sydney and Melbourne. In addition, on Monday, Friday, and Sunday there is a Q400 service via Canberra. Jetstar has a single service on Saturday.
It is a sad state of affairs on a route that is the financial lifeblood of both airlines. This route earns Qantas more than USD$630 million annually in revenue. Add in Virgin Australia’s take and the route between Sydney and Melbourne is a billion dollar revenue stream that’s vanished.
In a statement last week, Qantas told Simple Flying that some flights were only operating with a handful of passengers. The airline said that wasn’t sustainable.
Qantas winding down domestic operations to three aircraft
Last week, Qantas held an online staff briefing. Executive Traveller reported on comments made by Qantas bosses during that briefing. Qantas CEO, Alan Joyce, told staff the airline’s domestic operations will be reduced to just three aircraft in the coming days – and one of those will be a Q400 turboprop.
Qantas wants to maintain flights between the regions and cities. But the airline is walking a fine line, trying to maintain connectivity but also conserve cash. Qantas says it will also keep cutting services if needs be.
The biggest impact is felt in remote regions
As domestic flights evaporate, the real impact is being felt in areas far from Australia’s populated south east corner.
Next week, there are two flights next week between Perth and Sydney and just one flight to Melbourne. There is a single service out of Darwin to Sydney next week. In Cairns, there is one flight to Brisbane.
And these are the big centers. Other smaller places, often thousands of kilometers from their closest capital city, have lost their air connections altogether.
Regional airports have closed their doors. High profile closures (albeit not remote) include Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast Airports. Flying under the radar is the temporary closure of Alice Springs Airport.
Essential workers, notably FIFO doctors and medical staff, are having difficulties returning to their hospitals and clinics.
Weekend media is reporting on one man, a remote area school teacher now stranded in Darwin after his flight south was canceled. He’s rented a car to make the 3,200-kilometer drive home to south east Queensland.
While Qantas wants to conserve cash, the Australian government is increasingly aware of travelers being stranded and the consequent knock-on effects. It is now emerging that the government is looking at subsidizing a minimum amount of domestic flights.
People say everything will eventually get back to normal. Maybe. But I think it will be quite some time before the skies between Sydney and Melbourne are criss-crossed with contrails once again. As for services to more the far-flung destinations, there might be some very long road trips before they get back to normal.