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Airports brace for another arises in travelers

Australia’s major airports have issued a warning to those flying during the upcoming school holiday period; it’s set to be busier than what travelers experienced in April.

Ahead of the start of Victoria’s school holidays, which begin this weekend, Sydney and Melbourne airports are anticipating a surge in passenger numbers at both domestic and international terminals, with passenger forecasts for July on track to exceed the unmanageable levels seen at Easter.

Sydney Airport anticipates 2.1 million passengers to pass through its terminals between June 27 and July 17 – a significant increase from the 1.8 million over the April school holiday window.

Melbourne Airport is yet to release its July forecast, but expects traffic to soar to its highest in two years, with international travel in particular undergoing a significant spike as more Australians seek out warmer climes in Europe and North America.

“We have been working with airlines, service providers and contractors to prepare for yet another busy period, including recruiting,” said Melbourne Airport’s communications manager Rebecca Arnold.

“Many of the delays experienced over Easter were the result of airline-specific issues, such as baggage handling, and we know they have also been working to ensure those aren’t repeated.”

Staffing shortages at both Sydney and Melbourne airports drove long delays at check-in and security screening points, resulting in unprecedented queues and reports of some passengers missing flights due to delays.

Flights in April also had the worst domestic flight punctuality on record, with more than a third of all flights failing to depart on time according to figures from the Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics.

Sydney Airport CEO Geoff Culbert said travelers should factor in the possibility of long waits, and try to be patient with frontline staff.

“It’s terrific to see the ongoing demand for air travel but we won’t sugarcoat the fact that the terminals will be busy during the school holidays, and there will be queues,” Culbert said.

“We are doing everything we can to get people on their way, including bringing an additional 60 customer service staff into the terminals every day to help manage queues and bring passengers forward in order of flight priority.

“The root cause of these challenges is that every business at the airport is rebuilding its workforce and doing it in the tightest jobs market in nearly half a century,” said Culbert.

Despite the surge in airport traffic numbers, both airlines and major airports are optimistic travelers won’t see a repeat of the chaotic scenes captured during April.

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce last week said the airline was going into the July school holidays with “confidence”.

“We’ll see a different outcome because we’ve got 20 per cent reserve coverage, 15 per cent more people in ground handling and Sydney Airport’s had a job fair, with 5000 jobs that they’re hiring to fix the security queue issues, “I have told 2GB.

Joyce also said that lost baggage was an industry issue amid widespread staffing shortages, though claimed other airlines were experiencing it on a more significant level.

“We are adjusting our schedule and bringing extra resources in like we did in call centers to get the service levels back to where we want them to be,” said Joyce.

Qantas said the staggered start to the upcoming school holidays for states and territories across the country will translate to fewer passengers traveling domestically each day when compared with the Easter break, which was concentrated around five public holidays.

A Virgin Australia spokesperson said demand has spiked to a point in which leisure travel volumes have surpassed 2019 levels; the May Queen’s Birthday weekend was up 20 per cent compared to the same period in 2019.

“We have not been immune to the challenges experienced globally and our team works incredibly hard to help our guests get to their destinations safely and with minimal disruptions over busy periods,” the spokesperson said.

Virgin Australia said current demand is 10 per cent above Easter weekend levels. The spokesperson said the carrier is deploying all available team members amid staffing shortages, with additional resourcing being put on across its network to assist in guest services (corporate team members also have the option to work in guest services during the upcoming June and July school holiday period).

Transport Workers Union of Australia national secretary Michael Kaine said recent airport bedlam was chiefly a consequence of losing experienced ground crew during the pandemic.

“Wages and conditions at the airports were declining pre-pandemic, but have since nose-dived. The shortage of permanent, full-time jobs in favor of low-paid, casual or part-time work is driving chronic understaffing,” said Kaine .

“We’ll be seeing the same carnage during July school holidays and at Christmas if standards are not lifted at the airports.”

Qantas has been working to ease congestion during peak travel periods by spreading out flight departure times, adding additional staff to check-in areas, and posting more signage.

The carrier has also completed a rollout of new airport kiosks at the Sydney domestic terminal, making the check-in times faster. The kiosk rollout for Townsville and Cairns airports will be completed this week, with Mebourne and Adelaide airports to be installed after the school holidays.

Australian airports are advising that passengers pre-book parking, arrive two hours early for domestic flights, and three hours early for international flights – with the additional proviso travelers don’t arrive too early.

“Some airlines don’t open check-in until two hours before a domestic flight, so there may be an unnecessary wait if travelers arrive earlier than that,” Arnold cautioned.

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