Australian domestic airline industry approaches full recovery, but jet fuel prices hit record high

MR031121 - Rex 737, VH-RYU, pictured on the apron at Seletar Airport, Singapore awaiting scheduled maintenance
(PHOTO: Rex) number of passengers in Australia flying domestically in April 2022 was the highest it has been since the pandemic began, but jet fuel prices have surged to record levels and airfares are set to increase in the coming months, according to the latest Airline Competition in Australia released by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC).

The quarterly report shows 4.5 million passengers flew on Australia’s domestic airlines in April, which is 89 percent of pre-COVID levels. “After two very challenging years, it appears the domestic airline industry is approaching a full recovery,” ACCC Commissioner Anna Brakey said.

Flights to Queensland holiday destinations were especially popular in April. Passenger numbers on Canberra–Gold Coast reached 193 percent of pre-COVID levels, and passengers travelling between the Gold Coast and Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney also exceeded the pre-pandemic average.

The aviation industry welcomed the return of passengers over the busy Easter period, however, on-time departures dropped to 62 percent, their lowest point on record, due to COVID-related workforce shortages and staff absences. “Airlines and airports enjoyed strong demand at Easter, but the combination of high passenger numbers and staff shortages created operational challenges for them,” Brakey said.

The airlines are now forecasting a sustained recovery in domestic travel, but record high fuel prices are sending airfares higher and forcing airlines to revise their capacity forecasts. Monthly jet fuel prices hit an all-time high in May. Qantas subsequently revised down its capacity forecast from 107 to 103 per cent of pre-pandemic levels for July and August.

However, Virgin, Qantas and Jetstar reported that they expect to be flying at or above pre-pandemic levels in the coming months. Qantas has also said that demand for business travel is recovering faster than expected, with small business demand above pre-pandemic levels and larger corporate traffic at 85 percent in May. “A sustained recovery over the coming years will improve the financial health of the domestic airline industry and help secure the additional competition we’re seeing from new and expanding airlines,” Brakey said.

New ‘ultra-low-cost’ carrier Bonza is due to launch operations in the second half of 2022 flying 27 routes, the majority of which are currently unserved. The ACCC is monitoring how existing airlines react to this new competition, including by seeking information from the airlines to understand their strategic responses to Bonza.

Discount airfares briefly hit an 11-year low in late-April, following higher prices over Easter. However, airfares are expected to rise over the coming months. “While travellers have benefitted from generally low airfares over the past year as airlines encouraged people back to the sky, historically high prices for jet fuel means we are starting to see fares rise again,” Brakey said. “We will be monitoring the airlines’ pricing behaviour and looking out for conduct that may harm competition to the detriment of consumers. This will be increasingly relevant as the industry enters a more stable period after the disruption caused by COVID-19.”

In April, almost two million passengers flew on routes serviced by all three competing airline groups: Qantas Group (including Jetstar), Virgin and Rex. This figure represented 43 percent of all domestic passengers, compared with less than two percent recorded back in 2019. “We know that passengers are the winners when flying on routes where the Qantas Group, Virgin and Rex are all vying for customers,” Brakey said.

While the industry is close to recovery, passengers have been slower to return to some routes and the airlines continue to review their networks accordingly. Rex withdrew from one of its intercity routes, Sydney–Canberra, in late May. It will also be exiting some regional routes in late June when the Australian government’s Regional Airline Network Support program ends.

The reopening of the Western Australia border helped Qantas increase its market share. Qantas carried the most domestic passengers in April at 37 percent, up from 31 percent in January 2022. Virgin’s share fell to 31 percent and Rex’s remained steady at 4 percent. Qantas and its subsidiary Jetstar together carried around two-thirds of all domestic passengers in April 2022.

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