Qantas is cancelling almost one in 10 of its scheduled flights between Sydney and Melbourne every day but has rejected suggestions it is scratching services at short notice just because it hasn’t sold enough seats.
The airline’s average monthly cancellation rate for Sydney-Melbourne flights was 9.5 per cent in the six months to November, according to data collected by the Department of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics.
That is almost double the rate compared to two years ago, and a three-fold increase since 2015. Cancellation rates are broadly the same from Melbourne to Sydney.
Qantas’ main competitor on the route, Virgin Australia, has not seen the same increase in cancellations; they are steady at between 5 to 6 per cent since 2017.
The federal government bureau records a flight as being “cancelled” if it is called-off or rescheduled less than seven days prior to its scheduled departure time.
Qantas operates up to 46 return flights daily on Sydney-Melbourne, which is the world’s second-busiest air route, with flights every 15 minutes during the peak periods.
“We know how important it is for our customers to get to their destination on time,” a Qantas spokesman said.
“While our cancellation rate between Melbourne and Sydney improved significantly in December it is still too high.”
Qantas cancelled Sydney-Melbourne flights over other routes where possible because its high-frequency meant passengers could be put on another flight within 15 or 30 minutes, the spokesman said.
“While the cancellation rate looks high… the sheer number of flights allows us to minimise the actual disruption,” he said.
Rico Merkert, an aviation expert at the University of Sydney Business School, said the increase appeared at least partly due to Qantas cancelling emptier flights and moving passengers onto other services to save fuel and other costs.
Domestic passenger demand has flatlined over the past year and a half, and Qantas and Virgin have both signalled they would pull back on domestic seat capacity by about 2 per cent in the second half of this year.
“While it could be argued that the disruption to the passengers will be minimal… I would not be so sure as to whether that view is shared across the business traveller community, for which every minute counts,” Professor Merkert said.
Neil Hansford, an aviation analyst and commentator, agreed that the airline would look at load factors in the coming weeks and combine the emptiest flights on the high-frequency route.
“When you’ve got city pairs like that, and the number of flights scheduled, I think that’s exactly what’s happening,” Mr Hansford said.
However, Qantas rejected this, saying it only cancelled flights for operational reasons, not commercial reasons.
The latest available Department of Infrastructure data shows 2.2 per cent of scheduled flight were cancelled in November 2019 across all domestic routes and airlines.
Qantas had the highest total cancellation rate (3.2 per cent) of any airline that month, followed by Jetstar (3 per cent), Tigerair (2.4 per cent), Virgin Australia (2.2 per cent), regional service QantasLink (2.2 per cent) Virgin Australia Regional Airlines (1.2 per cent) and Regional Express (0.6 per cent).
Virgin Australia was the best-performing airline for on-time arrivals in November, with 74 per cent of its flights getting to the airport gate within 15 minutes of schedule. That was followed by Qantas (71 per cent), Jetstar (70 per cent) and Tigerair (65 per cent).
Qantas’ spokesman said the airline was working on a number of initiatives, including with government, Air Services Australia and airports, to improve punctuality and reduce cancellations.
Australia, unlike some comparable countries, has no fixed compensation scheme for passengers who are put out by delayed or cancelled flights. The European Union mandates compensation of between €250 ($400) and €600 ($964) for delays of more than three hours caused by factors within the airline’s control.
In New Zealand passengers can claim compensation for missed connecting flights or tickets to events they have missed due to delays, up to 10 times the value of their airfare.
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