One of the (very few) pleasant aspects of flying during the past 12 months has been the lack of crowds. While the sinking passenger numbers have been terrible for the airlines’ bottom lines, a silver lining for passengers has been shorter queues at security, lots of empty middle seats and no fights over overhead locker space.
Those days are almost over. But I’m not convinced that Australia’s airlines and airports are fully prepared to handle pre-pandemic levels of passenger numbers in a covid-safe way.
I’ve flown most weeks since the beginning of February, and noticed that airports are getting busier and flights more full with every passing week. It’s not my imagination. With all Australian state borders now open, Easter around the corner and the government soon to release 800,000 half-price tickets, more and more Australians are taking to the skies.
The airlines are responding by putting on more flights. By Easter, Virgin Australia expects to be operating at around 70% of pre-covid capacity. Qantas is planning to return to 80% of domestic capacity by the next quarter, and Jetstar 90%.
On many levels, it’s wonderful to see so many people returning to the skies and airlines able to bring people back to work. This is also excellent news for Australia’s tourism industry and economy.
But, despite Australia’s relative success in controlling COVID-19, the pandemic is still with us.
Crowded airports with minimal social distancing
As we’ve seen repeatedly in recent months, all it takes to ruin the domestic recovery is a small COVID-19 outbreak that spreads out of control.
So when I walked into Brisbane Airport last Monday morning, I was shocked by the huge crowd of passengers queueing up in the check-in area. The Virgin Australia domestic terminal was absolutely teeming with people, and there didn’t seem to be nearly enough staff to handle the large number of passengers. The wait even for priority check-in looked at least 30 minutes long.
Social distancing seemed to have been abandoned, too. At the security checkpoint, airport security staff were instructing passengers to move up in the queue and crowd around the x-ray belts, totally disregarding advice to wait 1.5 metres behind other people.
The crowded lounge I visited wasn’t much better. Understandably, some seats have been removed to allow for social distancing. But with so many people in the lounge, I couldn’t find a seat and there was a large crowd mingling around the barista station waiting for coffee (which took around 20 minutes due to the sheer volume of orders). If not for most people wearing masks (as is mandatory in Australian airports), and the QR code sign-in at the entrance, you wouldn’t notice that we’re in a pandemic.
Regarding the overcrowding at Brisbane Airport, a Virgin Australia spokesperson said that “all customers have a role to play when it comes to travelling safely and we continue to remind them of the various health and wellbeing measures we have in place within airports and onboard our services.”
“To save time, we’ve always encouraged guests to check-in online and use the bag-drop facility to speed up their experience,” the spokesperson also said.
Another Australian Frequent Flyer member had a similar experience at Melbourne Airport last weekend. They said the Virgin lounge was so crowded, and the queue to enter so long, that airline staff were deliberately calling flights early to clear out passengers.
Before the pandemic, airports were often crowded at peak times. But that was before social distancing guidelines, and there were usually enough staff to cope with the crowds. If this is a taste of what’s to come when travelling at a peak time during COVID-19, flying over the upcoming Easter holidays is unlikely to be a whole lot of fun.
Staff levels and airport services still not back to full capacity
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, many airline staff were stood down and many airport services reduced. This wasn’t generally a problem last year, when so few people were flying anyway.
But the impression I get now is that many airlines and airports are still operating as if they’re at reduced capacity, even as crowds rapidly return and planes fill up.
Twice in the past two months, I’ve also experienced 15-minute delays in disembarking from Qantas flights that otherwise arrived on time, because there were no ground staff available to connect the jetbridge.
With flights getting more full, at least Virgin and Rex are weighing passengers’ hand luggage to ensure people are following the rules and there is enough space in the overhead compartments.
Reduced airport lounge capacity
In Melbourne, Virgin Australia is still using a smaller temporary lounge. A Virgin Australia spokesperson said the regular lounge is expected to reopen in the coming months.
“We have used the last few months to undertake maintenance work in our Melbourne Lounge. We are well progressed with this work and anticipate having the space reopened in coming months,” a Virgin spokesperson said.
As of now, Qantas is also still sending all passengers in Melbourne and Canberra to its Business Lounges, as the Qantas Clubs at those airports are still closed. Yesterday, one AFF member described the Qantas Melbourne Business Lounge as a “zoo”. But, fortunately, Qantas says it plans to reopen all domestic Qantas Club locations except Rockhampton and Port Hedland by Easter.
Premium Lounge Entry points still closed
Meanwhile, some airports are still not operating all of their security checkpoints. And in Sydney and Brisbane, Virgin’s premium lounge entries are still closed – meaning all passenges are fed through one security checkpoint, adding to the security bottleneck during peak times at those airports.
“We know how important it is for premium customers to move through the airport quickly and seamlessly and are working with Brisbane and Sydney Airports to re-open our Premium Entry in line with increased travel demand,” a Virgin spokesperson told us. However, the kerbside Premium Club entry in Melbourne will remain closed “for the foreseeable future” due to construction works at Melbourne Airport.
The Easter holidays are just weeks away, and it is likely to be the busiest travel period Austalia has seen for over a year. This is a great opportunity for Australia’s struggling airlines and airports. I just hope they’re adequately staffed and have the infrastructure restored to handle such large crowds in a covid-safe way. So far, I’m sorry to say, I’ve seen little evidence of that.